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How to Change 

Your Mind and 

Your Life 



Author of Authentic Happiness 

“Vaulted me out of my funk. . . . So, fellow moderate pessimists, go 
buy this book .” — Marian S&ndmaier, The New York 'Timee Book Review 

Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D. 

Learned Optimism 

Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D., professor of psy¬ 
chology at the University of Pennsylvania and 
a past president of the American Psychologi¬ 
cal Association is a leading motivational 
expert and an authority on learned helpless¬ 
ness. He is the director of the Positive Psychol¬ 
ogy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. 
His many books include Authentic Happiness 
and The Optimistic Child. Dr. Seligman’s 
research has been supported by the National 
Institute on Mental Health, the National Insti¬ 
tute on Aging, the National Science Founda¬ 
tion, the Department of Education, the 
MacArthur Foundation, the Templeton Foun¬ 
dation, and the Guggenheim Foundation. 


Learned Helplessness: A Theory for the Age of Personal Control 
What You Can Change and What You Can’t 
Authentic Happiness 
The Optimistic Child 

Learned Optimism 

How to Change Your Mind and Your Life 

Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D. 


A Division of Random House , Inc. 
New York 

This book is dedicated with optimism about our future 
to my newborn, Lara Catrina Seligman 


Copyright © 1990,1998, 2006 by Martin E. P. Seligman 

All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division 
of Random House, Inc., New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada 
Limited, Toronto. Originally published in hardcover in the United States by 
Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, in 1991, and 
subsequently published in different form by Free Press, New York, in 1998. 

Vintage and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc. 

Grateful acknowledgment is made to Liveright Publishing Corporation and 
Grafton Books for permission to reprint an excerpt from “love is a place” from 
No Thanks by e.e. cummings, edited by George James Firmage. Copyright © 1935 
by e.e. cummings. Copyright © 1968 by Marion Morehouse Cummings. Copyright 
© 1973,1978 by the Trustees for the e.e. cummings Trust. Copyright © 1973,1978 
by George James Firmage. Rights outside the U.S. and Canada administered by 
Grafton Books from Complete Poems Vol. I by e. e. cummings. Reprinted by 
permission of Liveright Publishing Corporation and Grafton Books, a division of 
the Collins publishing Group. Poem #254 from The Complete Poems of Emily 
Dickinson , edited by Thomas Johnson; Little, Brown and Company, Boston. 

The Library of Congress has cataloged the Knopf edition as follows: 

Learned optimism / Martin E. P. Seligman 
p. cm. 

Includes bibliography and index. 

I. Optimism. I. Title. 

[BJ1477.S45 1992] 


Vintage ISBN-10:1-4000-7839-3 
Vintage ISBN-13:978-1-4000-7839-4 

Author photograph © Kyle Cassidy ASC/Pandemon 
Book design by Georgia Kiing 

Printed in the United States of America 


Preface to the Vintage Edition 




Part One: 

The Quest 


1 . 

Two Ways of Looking at Life 



Learning to Be Helpless 



Explaining Misfortune 



Ultimate Pessimism 



How You Think, How You Peel 


Part Two: 

The Realms of Life 



Success at Work 



Children and Parents: 

The Origins of Optimism 












Politics, Religion, and Culture: 

A New Psychohistory 


Part Three: 


From Pessimism to Optimism 



The Optimistic Life 


13 . 

Helping Your Child Escape Pessimism 


14 . 

The Optimistic Organization 


15 . 

Flexible Optimism 







3 ii 

Preface to the Vintage Edition 

When I first began to work on learned optimism, I thought I was 
working on pessimism. Like almost all researchers with a background in 
clinical psychology, I was accustomed to focusing on what was wrong 
with individuals and then on how to fix it. Looking closely at what was 
already right and how to make it even better did not enter my mind. 

The turning point was a meeting in 1988 with Richard Pine, the per¬ 
son who was destined to become my literary agent, intellectual advisor, 
and friend. I described my work on pessimism and Richard said, “Your 
work is not about pessimism; it’s about optimism.” No one had said this 
to me before. As I left his office, somewhat shaken, he called out, “I pray 
you’ll write a book about this. They make religions out of this stuff!” 

I did. No religions sprouted up, but the book has sold steadily for 
fifteen years. And something did happen: Positive Psychology. In 1996, 
I was elected president of the American Psychological Association by 
what they tell me was the largest vote in history, thanks in part to the 
popularity of this book and the field of research that it spawned. 

The president of the American Psychological Association is sup¬ 
posed to have an initiative, a theme of office, and as I looked over the 
modern history of psychology, I saw that Richard had given me my 
theme. Psychology now seemed half-baked to me. The half that was 
fully-baked was devoted to suffering, victims, mental illness, and 
trauma. Psychology had worked steadily and with considerable suc¬ 
cess for fifty years on the pathologies that disable the good life, which 
make life not worth living. By my count fourteen of the major mental 
illnesses are now treatable by psychotherapy or by medications, with 
two of them (panic disorder and blood and injury phobia) virtually 
curable. But clinical psychologists also began to find something dis¬ 
concerting emerging from therapy: even on that rare occasion when 
therapy goes superbly and unusually well, and you help the client rid 
herself of depression, anxiety, and anger, happiness is not guaranteed. 
Emptiness is not an uncommon result. How can this be? 

Curing the negatives does not produce the positives. In jargon, the 
correlation between sadness and happiness is not anything close to 



Preface to the Vintage Edition 

-i.oo; it is more like -0.40. Strangely one can both be happy and sad 
(although not in the same instant). Women, in fact, being more emo¬ 
tionally labile, are both happier and sadder than men. The skills of 
becoming happy turn out to be almost entirely different from the skills 
of not being sad, not being anxious, or not being angry. Psychology had 
told us a great deal about pathology, about suffering, about victims, 
and how to acquire the skills to combat sadness and anxiety. But dis¬ 
covering the skills of becoming happier had been relegated to amuse¬ 
ment parks, Hollywood, and beer commercials. Science had played 
no role. 

When you lie in bed at night and contemplate your life and the lives 
of the people you love, you are usually thinking about how to go from 
+2 to +6, not how to go from -5 to -2. But at its best, psychology had 
only told us how to relieve misery, not how to find what is best in life 
and live it accordingly. This was the unbaked half that would become 
Positive Psychology. 

Learned Optimism is the foundation of my thinking about Positive 
Psychology, and it is the first of the triptych that leads there. In 1996, 
I published The Optimistic Child , which applies the knowledge and 
the skills you will read about in this volume to teenagers and school- 
children. In 2002 ,1 published the third book of the series: Authentic 
Happiness. This book sets forward a larger theory about the positive 
side of life: “happiness” is a scientifically unwieldy notion, but there 
are three different forms of it you can pursue. For the “Pleasant Life,” 
you aim to have as much positive emotion as possible and learn the 
skills to amplify positive emotion. For the “Engaged Life,” you iden¬ 
tify your highest strengths and talents and recraft your life to use them 
as much as you can in work, love, friendship, parenting, and leisure. For 
the “Meaningful Life,” you use your highest strengths and talents to 
belong to and serve something you believe is larger than the self. 

Learned Optimism can set you on the path to any or all three forms 
of happiness. The skills you will read about here can increase the dura¬ 
tion and intensity of your positive emotions. These skills can enable 
you to use your highest strengths and talents more effectively. Finally, 
optimism is invaluable for the meaningful life. With a firm belief in a 
positive future you can throw yourself into the service of that which is 
larger than you are. 

Wynnewood, Pennsylvania 

July 15,2005 

Introduction to the Second Edition 

by Martin E. P. Seligman 

I have spent my entire professional life working on helplessness and 
ways to enlarge personal control. Learned Optimism was the first of a 
quartet of books to explore this theme for the general reader. 1 Six 
years have passed since the first paperback edition of this book was 
published, so I wanted to bring my new readers up to date with news 
about a crucial development since the first edition—the prevention of 
depression by programs of learned optimism. 

As you will see in Chapters 4 and 5, our nation, and most of the 
developed world, is experiencing an unprecedented epidemic of depres¬ 
sion—particularly among young people. Why is it that in a nation that 
has more money, more power, more records, more books, and more 
education, that depression should be so much more prevalent than it 
was when the nation was less prosperous and less powerful? 

Three forces have now converged, and I want to emphasize the third 
because it is the most surprising and least congenial. The first two forces 

'The members of the quartet are: a) Seligman, M. E. P. ( 1991 ). Learned Optimism 
(paperback edition): Pocket Books (Simon & Schuster, Inc.); b) Peterson, C., Mater, S., 
and Seligman, M. E. P. ( 1993 ). Learned helplessness: A Theory for the Age of Personal 
Control . New York: Oxford University Press; c) Seligman, M. E. P. ( 1994 ). What You 
Can Change and What You Can't New York: Alfred A. Knopf; and d) Seligman, 
M. E. P., Reivich, K., Jaycox, L., and Gillham, J. ( 1995 ). The Optimistic Child, New 
York: Houghton Mifflin. 


vi Introduction to the Second Edition 

are discussed in the concluding chapter of this book: briefly, the first is 
that, in general, depression is a disorder of the “I,” failing in your own 
eyes relative to your goals. In a society in which individualism is becom¬ 
ing rampant, people more and more believe that they are the center of the 
world. Such a belief system makes individual failure almost inconsolable. 

Individual failure used to be buffered by the second force, the large 
“we.” When our grandparents failed, they had comfortable spiritual fur¬ 
niture to rest in. They had, for the most part, their relationship to God, 
their relationship to a nation they loved, their relationship to a community 
and a large extended family. Faith in God, community, nation, and the 
large extended family have all eroded in the last forty years, and the 
spiritual furniture that we used to sit in has become threadbare. 

But it is the third force, the self-esteem movement, that I want to 
emphasize. I have five children who range in age from four to twenty- 
eight. So I have had the privilege of reading children’s books every night 
for a whole generation, and I have seen a sea change in children’s books 
over the last twenty-five years. Twenty-five years ago (as it was during 
the time of the Great Depression), the emblematic children’s book was 
The Little Engine That Could. It is about doing well in the world, about 
persisting and therefore overcoming obstacles. Now many children’s 
books are about feeling good, having high self-esteem, and exuding con¬ 

This is a manifestation of the self-esteem movement, a movement 
which started, not surprisingly, in California in the 1960 s. In 1990 , the 
California legislature sponsored a report that suggested that self-esteem 
be taught in every classroom as a “vaccine” against social ills, such as 
drug addiction, suicide, welfare dependency, teenage pregnancy, and de¬ 
pression (Toward a State of Esteem, 1990). 2 The self-esteem movement 
is a movement with teeth; this is the movement underlying the demise of 
IQ testing, lest children who score low feel badly about themselves. This 
is the movement underlying the end of tracking in our public schools, lest 
kids of lower tracks feel badly about themselves. This is the movement 
that has made competition a dirty word. This is a movement that has led 
to less plain old hard work. Shirley McLaine suggested to President Clin¬ 
ton that he create a cabinet-level Secretary of Self-Esteem. 

I am not against self-esteem, but I believe that self-esteem is just a 
meter that reads out the state of the system. It is not an end in itself. 
When you are doing well in school or work, when you are doing well 
with the people you love, when you are doing well in play, the meter will 

2 Sacramento: California Department of Education 

Introduction to the Second Edition 


register high. When you are doing badly, it will register low. I have 
scoured the self-esteem literature looking for the causality as opposed to 
correlation, looking for any evidence that high self-esteem among young¬ 
sters causes better grades, more popularity, less teenage pregnancy, less 
dependence on welfare, as the California report contends. There is a sim¬ 
ple experimental design which perfectly separates cause from correlation: 
Take a group of children in September, all the B students, for instance; 
measure their self-esteem and then come back in June. If self-esteem 
causes grades to change, the B students with high self-esteem will tend 
to go up toward A’s, and the B students with low self-esteem will go 
down toward C’s. There is nothing of this sort to be found in the litera¬ 
ture. Self-esteem seems only to be a symptom, a correlate, of how well a 
person is doing in the world. 

Until January 19%, I believed that self-esteem was merely a meter 
with little, if any, causal efficacy. The lead article in the Psychological 
Review convinced me that I was wrong, and that self-esteem is causal: 
Roy Baumeister and his colleagues (1996) 3 reviewed the literature on 
genocidal killers, on hit men, on gang leaders, and on violent criminals. 
They argued that these perpetrators have high self-esteem, and that their 
unwarranted self-esteem causes violence. Baumeister’s work suggests 
that if you teach unwarrantedly high self-esteem to children, problems 
will ensue. A sub-group of these children will also have a mean streak in 
them. When these children confront the real world, and it tells them they 
are not as great as they have been taught, they will lash out with violence. 
So it is possible that the twin epidemics among young people in the 
United States today, depression and violence, both come from this misbe¬ 
gotten concern: valuing how our young people feel about themselves 
more highly than how we value how well they are doing in the world. 

If boosting self-esteem is not the answer to curbing the epidemic of 
depression, what can be done? Since the first edition of Learned Opti¬ 
mism was published, my colleagues 4 and I have been doing two sets of 
projects at the University of Pennsylvania: one with young adults, Penn 
freshman; and the second with children right before puberty. 

3 Baumeister, Roy F., Smart, Laura, Boden, Joseph M. ( 1996 ). “Relation of Threat¬ 
ened Egotism to Violence and Aggression: The Dark Side of High Self-Esteem.” Psy¬ 
chological Review. 103, pp. 5 - 33 . 

4 My colleagues doing the project with Penn undergraduates are Mr. Peter Shulman, 
and Drs. Rob DeRubeis, Steve Hollon, Art Freeman, and Karen Reivich. This work has 
been supported by the Prevention Research Branch of the National Institute of Mental 

Introduction to the Second Edition 


Our logic is to take young people at risk for depression, teach them 
the skills of learned optimism that you will read about in Chapters 11-13 
of this book, and ask if we can thereby prevent depressive and anxiety 
disorders. Starting in the spring of 1991, when students accepted their 
admissions to the University of Pennsylvania, they then got a letter from 
me by return mail. It asked them to take a questionnaire, a version of 
which is included in Chapter 3. Most of them sent the questionnaire back 
filled out. We scored it, and then students in the bottom quarter of pessi¬ 
mism got another letter from me saying that when they arrived in Septem¬ 
ber, we were going to be running workshops about how to cope with 
this unfamiliar new environment; if they were willing, they would be 
randomized either into a control group or into one of these workshops. 
So for the last several years, the most pessimistic quarter of Penn’s fresh¬ 
man class has been in these workshops, or has been in our assessment- 
only control group. 

We teach two sets of skills in the workshop, conducted in groups of 
ten by Penn’s talented clinical psychology graduate students: We teach 
people the skills detailed in Chapters 11-13, and an additional set of 
behavioral skills, including assertive training, graded task assignment, 
and stress management. 

After eighteen months of follow-up, I can report our first results with 
119 people in the control group, and 106 who took the 16-hour learned- 
optimism workshop. Every six months each person had a complete diag¬ 
nostic interview, and we looked at moderate and severe episodes of de¬ 
pression and anxiety. Thirty-two percent of the students in the control 
group had a moderate to severe episode of depression, in contrast to 22 
percent of the group that was in the preventive workshop. Similar results 
were obtained for generalized anxiety disorder: 15 percent of the controls 
had an episode of generalized anxiety disorder, versus only 7 percent of 
people who took the workshop. We also found that it was the change 
from pessimism to optimism that caused the prevention of depression and 

My colleagues and I have recently launched the parallel learned- 
optimism program with schoolchildren of various ages. 5 Five studies teach 
ten- to twelve-year-old children the cognitive and behavioral anti-depression 
skills from Chapters 11-13 in this book. In these studies we select chil¬ 
dren for two risk factors: one is mild symptoms of depression, and the 

5 My colleagues on these projects are Drs Karen Reivich, Jane Gillham, Rob De- 
Rubeis, Lisa Jaycox, Steve Hollon, Andrew Shatte, and Mr. Peter Schulman. We are 
supported by the NIMH Prevention Research Branch. 

Introduction to the Second Edition 


other is their parents’ fighting a lot. Each of these factors predicts depres¬ 
sion in young children. If a child scores high on either of these, the child 
is then eligible for our training program. Anti-depression skills are taught 
to groups of ten children after school, using skits, cartoons, role playing, 
and lots of refreshments. (You will find the methods outlined in Chapter 
13, and detailed in The Optimistic Child.) 

I will tell you about only one study here, the one with longest follow¬ 
up. It was done in Abington Township, near Philadelphia (Jaycox, Rei- 
vich, Gillham and Seligman, 1994; Gillham, Reivich, Jaycox, and Selig- 
man, 1996). 6 The findings of the Abington study revealed the following: 

1 . Over the two-year follow-up, the overall percentage of chil¬ 
dren who show symptoms in the moderate to severe range of de¬ 
pression is shockingly high (between 20 percent and 45 percent). 

2. The children who took the optimism workshop had only 
about half the rate of moderate or severe depressive symptoms as 
the control group. 

3. Immediately after the workshop, the untreated group had 
significantly more depressive symptoms than the group that took 
the optimism workshop. 

4. The benefits of learned optimism grow over time. As the 
children in the control group went through puberty, got their first 
social and sexual rejections, and moved from top dog in middle 
school to the bottom of the heap in high school, they got more and 
more depressed when compared to children in the optimism 
group. At twenty-four months forty-four percent of them had mod¬ 
erate to severe depressive symptoms, whereas only twenty two 
percent of the optimism group have moderate or severe symptoms. 

Teaching children learned optimism before puberty, but late enough 
in childhood so that they are metacognitive (capable of thinking about 
thinking), is a fruitful strategy. When the immunized children use these 
skills to cope with the first rejections of puberty, they get better and better 
at using these skills. Our analysis shows that the change from pessimism 
to optimism is at least partly responsible for the prevention of depressive 

‘Gillham, J., Reivich, K., Jaycox, L., Seligman, M. E. P. ( 1995 ). Prevention of de¬ 
pressive symptoms in schoolchildren: Two-year follow-up. Psychological Science, 6(6), 
pp. 343 - 51 . Jaycox, L., Reivich, K., Gillham, J., & Seligman, M. E. P. ( 1994 ). “Preven¬ 
tion of Depressive Symptoms in Schoolchildren.” Behavior Research and Therapy, 32 , 

pp. 801 - 16 . 


Introduction to the Second Edition 

As you read this book, you will see that there is an epidemic of de¬ 
pression among adults and among children in the United States today. As 
Chapters 6-10 document, depression is not just about mental suffering; 
it is also about lowered productivity and worsened physical health. If this 
epidemic continues, I believe that America’s place in the world will be in 
jeopardy. America will lose its economic place to less pessimistic nations 
than ours, and this pessimism will sap our will to bring about social 
justice in our own country. 

This problem will not be ended by Prozac. We are not going to give 
anti-depressant drugs to an entire generation. Anti-depressant drugs are 
ineffective before puberty, and there are grave moral dangers to making 
an entire generation dependent on drugs for their mood and their produc¬ 
tivity. We are also not going to do therapy with an entire generation, 
because there are simply not enough good therapists to go around. 

What we can do is to take the skills that you will learn in this book 
and translate them into an educative mode. In the schools and homes of 
America, we can teach them to all young people at risk for depression, 
thereby overcoming depression in our own lives, and in the lives of our 

July 31, 1997 

Wynnewood, Pennsylvania 

yes is a world 
& in this world of 
yes live 

(skilfully curled) 
all worlds 

e. e. cummings 
“love is a place” 
No Thanks ( 1935 ) 


The Quest 


Two Ways of Looking at Life 

ThefatherIs looking down into the crib at his sleeping newborn daugh¬ 
ter, just home from the hospital. His heart is overflowing with awe and 
gratitude for the beauty of her, the perfection. 

The baby opens her eyes and stares straight up. 

The father calls her name, expecting that she will turn her head and 
look at him. Her eyes don’t move. 

He picks up a furry little toy attached to the rail of the bassinet and 
shakes it, ringing the bell it contains. The baby’s eyes don’t move. 

His heart has begun to beat rapidly. He finds his wife in their bedroom 
and tells her what just happened. “She doesn’t seem to respond to noise 
at all,” he says. “It’s as if she can’t hear.” 

“I’m sure she’s all right,” the wife says, pulling her dressing gown around 
her. Together they go into the nursery. 

She calls the baby’s name, jingles the bell, claps her hands. Then she 
picks up the baby, who immediately perks up, wiggling and cooing. 

“My God,” the father says. “She’s deaf.” 

“No she’s not,” the mother says. “I mean, it’s too soon to say a thing 
like that. Look, she’s brand-new. Her eyes don’t even focus yet.” 

“But there wasn’t the slightest movement, even when you clapped as 
hard as you could.” 

The mother takes a book from the shelf. “Let’s read what’s in the baby 
book,” she says. She looks up “hearing” and reads out loud: “ 'Don’t be 
alarmed if your newborn fails to startle at loud noises or fails to orient 
toward sound. The startle reflex and attention to sound often take some 



time to develop. Your pediatrician can test your child’s hearing neuro- 

“There,” the mother says. “Doesn’t that make you feel better?” 

“Not much,” the father says. “It doesn’t even mention the other pos¬ 
sibility, that the baby is deaf. And all I know is that my baby doesn’t hear 
a thing. I’ve got the worst feeling about this. Maybe it’s because my grand¬ 
father was deaf. If that beautiful baby is deaf and it’s my fault, I’ll never 
forgive myself.” 

“Hey, wait a minute,” says the wife. “You’re going off the deep end. 
We’ll call the pediatrician first thing Monday. In the meantime, cheer up. 
Here, hold the baby while I fix her blanket. It’s all pulled out.” 

The father takes the baby but gives her back to his wife as soon as he 
can. All weekend he finds himself unable to open his briefcase and prepare 
for next week’s work. He follows his wife around the house, ruminating 
about the baby’s hearing and about the way deafness would ruin her life. 
He imagines only the worst: no hearing, no development of language, his 
beautiful child cut off from the social world, locked in soundless isolation. 
By Sunday night he has sunk into despair. 

The mother leaves a message with the pediatrician’s answering service 
asking for an early appointment Monday. She spends the weekend doing 
her exercises, reading, and trying to calm her husband. 

The pediatrician’s tests are reassuring, but the father’s spirits remain 
low. Not until a week later, when the baby shows her first startle, to the 
backfire of a passing truck, does he begin to recover and enjoy his new 
daughter again. 

THiSFATHERand mother have two different ways of looking at the world. 
Whenever something bad happens to him—a tax audit, a marital squabble, 
even a frown from his employer—he imagines the worst: bankruptcy and 
jail, divorce, dismissal. He is prone to depression; he has long bouts of 
listlessness; his health suffers. She, on the other hand, sees bad events in 
their least threatening light. To her, they are temporary and surmountable, 
challenges to be overcome. After a reversal, she comes back quickly, soon 
regaining her energy. Her health is excellent. 

The optimists and the pessimists: I have been studying them for the past 
twenty-five years. The defining characteristic of pessimists is that they tend 
to believe bad events will last a long time, will undermine everything they 
do, and are their own fault. The optimists, who are confronted with the 
same hard knocks of this world, think about misfortune in the opposite 
way. They tend to believe defeat is just a temporary setback, that its causes 

Two Ways of Looking at Life 


are confined to this one case. The optimists believe defeat is not their fault: 
Circumstances, bad luck, or other people brought it about. Such people 
are unfazed by defeat. Confronted by a bad situation, they perceive it as 
a challenge and try harder. 

These two habits of thinking about causes have consequences. Literally 
hundreds of studies show that pessimists give up more easily and get de¬ 
pressed more often. These experiments also show that optimists do much 
better in school and college, at work and on the playing field. They regularly 
exceed the predictions of aptitude tests. When optimists run for office, 
they are more apt to be elected than pessimists are. Their health is unusually 
good. They age well, much freer than most of us from the usual physical 
ills of middle age. Evidence suggests they may even live longer. 

I have seen that, in tests of hundreds of thousands of people, a surpris¬ 
ingly large number will be found to be deep-dyed pessimists and another 
large portion will have serious, debilitating tendencies toward pessimism. 
I have learned that it is not always easy to know if you are a pessimist, 
and that far more people than realize it are living in this shadow. Tests 
reveal traces of pessimism in the speech of people who would never think 
of themselves as pessimists; they also show that these traces are sensed by 
others, who react negatively to the speakers. 

A pessimistic attitude may seem so deeply rooted as to be permanent. 
I have found, however, that pessimism is escapable. Pessimists can in fact 
learn to be optimists, and not through mindless devices like whistling a 
happy tune or mouthing platitudes (“Every day, in every way, I’m getting 
better and better”), but by learning a new set of cognitive skills. Far from 
being the creations of boosters or of the popular media, these skills were 
discovered in the laboratories and clinics of leading psychologists and psy¬ 
chiatrists and then rigorously validated. 

This book will help you discover your own pessimistic tendencies, if you 
have them, or those of people you care for. It will also introduce you to 
the techniques that have helped thousands of people undo lifelong habits 
of pessimism and its extension, depression. It will give you the choice of 
looking at your setbacks in a new light. 

The Unclaimed Territory 

At the core of the phenomenon of pessimism is another phenomenon— 
that of helplessness. Helplessness is the state of affairs in which nothing 
you choose to do affects what happens to you. For example, if I promise 



you one thousand dollars to turn to page 104 , you will probably choose to 
do so, and you will succeed. If, however, I promise you one thousand 
dollars to contract the pupil of your eye, using only willpower, you may 
choose to do it, but that won’t matter. You are helpless to contract your 
pupil. Page turning is under your voluntary control; the muscles that change 
your pupillary size are not. 

Life begins in utter helplessness. The newborn infant cannot help him¬ 
self, for he* is almost entirely a creature of reflex. When he cries, his 
mother comes, although this does not mean that he controls his mother’s 
coming. His crying is a mere reflex reaction to pain and discomfort. He 
has no choice about whether he cries. Only one set of muscles in the 
newborn seems to be under even the barest voluntary control: the set 
involved in sucking. The last years of a normal life are sometimes ones of 
sinking back into helplessness. We may lose the ability to walk. Sadly, we 
may lose the mastery over our bowels and bladder that we won in our 
second year of life. We may lose our ability to find the word we want. 
Then we may lose speech itself, and even the ability to direct our thoughts. 

The long period between infancy and our last years is a process of 
emerging from helplessness and gaining personal control. Personal control 
means the ability to change things by one’s voluntary actions; it is the 
opposite of helplessness. In the first three or four months of an infant’s 
life some rudimentary arm and leg motions come under voluntary control. 
The flailing of his arms refines into reaching. Then, to his parents’ dismay, 
crying becomes voluntary: The infant can now bawl whenever he wants 
his mother. He badly overuses this new power, until it stops working. The 
first year ends with two miracles of voluntary control: the first steps and 
the first words. If all goes well, if the growing child’s mental and physical 
needs are at least minimally met, the years that follow are ones of dimin¬ 
ishing helplessness and of growing personal control. 

Many things in life are beyond our control—our eye color, our race, the 
drought in the Midwest. But there is a vast, unclaimed territory of actions 
over which we can take control—or cede control to others or to fate. These 
actions involve the way we lead our lives, how we deal with other people, 
how we earn our living—all the aspects of existence in which we normally 
have some degree of choice. 

The way we think about this realm of life can actually diminish or enlarge 

* Throughout this book, when the pronoun “he” is used, as it is m this sentence, simply 
to mean a human being, the reader is asked to read it as “he or she.” To use “he or she” 
in every instance would be awkward and distracting, and at the moment there seems to be 
no workable alternative, although in due time the ever-vigorous English language will doubt¬ 
less evolve one. 

Two Ways of Looking at Life 


the control we have over it. Our thoughts are not merely reactions to 
events; they change what ensues. For example, if we think we are helpless 
to make a difference in what our children become, we will be paralyzed 
when dealing with this facet of our lives. The very thought “Nothing I do 
matters” prevents us from acting. And so we cede control to our children’s 
peers and teachers, and to circumstance. When we overestimate our help¬ 
lessness, other forces will take control and shape our children’s future. 

Later in this book we will see that judiciously employed, mild pessimism 
has its uses. But twenty-five years of study has convinced me that if we 
habitually believe, as does the pessimist, that misfortune is our fault, is 
enduring, and will undermine everything we do, more of it will befall us 
than if we believe otherwise. I am also convinced that if we are in the grip 
of this view, we will get depressed easily, we will accomplish less than our 
potential, and we will even get physically sick more often. Pessimistic 
prophecies are self-fulfilling. 

A poignant example is the case of a young woman I knew, a student at 
a university where I once taught. For three years her advisor, a professor 
of English literature, had been extremely helpful, almost affectionate. His 
backing, along with her high grades, had won her a scholarship to study 
at Oxford for her junior year. When she returned from England, her main 
interest had shifted from Dickens, her advisor’s specialty, to earlier British 
novelists, particularly Jane Austen, the specialty of one of his colleagues. 
Her advisor tried to persuade her to do her senior paper on Dickens, but 
seemed to accept without resentment her decision to work on Austen and 
agreed to continue as her co-advisor. 

Three days befork her oral examination, the original advisor sent a note 
to the examining committee accusing the young woman of plagiarism in 
her senior thesis. Her crime, he said, was failing to give credit to two 
scholarly sources for her statements about Jane Austen’s adolescence, in 
effect taking credit for those perceptions herself. Plagiarism is the gravest 
of academic sins, and the young woman’s whole future—her fellowship to 
graduate school, even graduation itself—was threatened. 

When she looked at the passages the professor said she had failed to 
credit, she found that both had come from the same source—the professor 
himself. She had gotten them during a casual conversation with him, in 
which he had spoken of the perceptions as just his own thoughts on the 
matter; he had nev)sr mentioned the published sources from which he had 
obtained them. The young woman had been sandbagged by a mentor 
jealous of losing her. 

Many people would have reacted with fury at the professor. Not Eliz¬ 
abeth. Her habit of pessimistic thinking took over. To the committee, she 



was certain, she would appear guilty. And, she told herself, there was no 
way she could prove otherwise. It would be her word against his, and he 
was a professor. Instead of defending herself, she collapsed inwardly, look¬ 
ing at every aspect of the situation in the worst possible light. It was all 
her own fault, she told herself. It really didn't matter that the professor 
had gotten the ideas from someone else. The main thing was that she had 
“stolen” the ideas, since she had failed to credit the professor. She had 
cheated, she believed; she was a cheat, and she probably always had been. 

It may seem incredible that she could blame herself when she was so 
obviously innocent. But careful research shows that people with pessimistic 
habits of thinking can transform mere setbacks into disasters. One way 
they do this is by converting their own innocence into guilt. Elizabeth 
dredged up memories that seemed to her to confirm her extreme verdict: 
the time in seventh grade when she had copied test answers from another 
girl's paper; the time in England when she had failed to correct the mis- 
impression of some English friends that she came from a wealthy family. 
And now this act of “cheating” in the writing of her thesis. She stood silent 
at her hearing before the examining committee and was denied her degree. 

This story does not have a happy ending. With the washout of her plans, 
her life was ruined. For the past ten years she has worked as a salesgirl. 
She has few aspirations. She no longer writes, or even reads literature. 
She is still paying for what she considered her crime. 

There was no crime, only a common human frailty: a pessimistic habit 
of thinking. If she had said to herself, “I was robbed. The jealous bastard 
set me up,” she would have risen to her own defense and told her story. 
The professor’s dismissal from an earlier teaching job for doing the same 
thing might have emerged. She would have graduated with high honors— 
if only she had had different habits of thinking about the bad events in her 

Habits of thinking need not be forever. One of the most significant 
findings in psychology in the last twenty years is that individuals can choose 
the way they think. 

The science of psychology has not always cared about individual styles 
of thinking, or about individual human action or the individual at all. Quite 
the opposite. When I was a graduate student in psychology, twenty-five 
years ago, dilemmas such as the one I've just described were not explained 
the way they are today. At that time people were assumed to be products 
of their environment. The prevailing explanation of human action was that 
people were “pushed” by their internal drives or “pulled” by external 
events. Though the details of the pushing and pulling depended on the 
particular theory you happened to hold, in outline all the fashionable 

Two Ways of Looking at Life 


theories agreed on this proposition. The Freudians held that unresolved 
childhood conflicts drove adult behavior. The followers of B. F. Skinner 
held that behavior was repeated only when reinforced externally. The 
ethologists held that behavior resulted from fixed action patterns deter¬ 
mined by our genes, and the behaviorist followers of Clark Hull held that 
we were goaded into action by the need to reduce drives and satisfy bio¬ 
logical needs. 

Starting around 1965, the favored explanations began to change radically. 
A person’s environment was considered less and less important in causing 
his behavior. Four different lines of thought converged on the proposition 
that self-direction, rather than outside forces, could explain human action. 

• In 1959, Noam Chomsky wrote a devastating critique of B. F. Skin¬ 
ner’s seminal book Verbal Behavior . Chomsky argued that language 
in particular and human action in general were not the result of 
strengthening past verbal habits by reinforcement. The essence of 
language, he said, is that it is generative: Sentences never said or 
heard before (such as (( There’s a purple Gila monster sitting on your 
lap”) could nevertheless be understood immediately. 

• Jean Piaget, the great Swiss investigator of how children develop, 
had persuaded most of the world—the Americans last—that the 
unfolding mind of the individual child could be scientifically 

• In 1967, with the publication of Ulric Neisser’s Cognitive Psychology , 
a new field captured the imagination of the young experimental 
psychologists fleeing the dogmas of behaviorism. Cognitive psy¬ 
chology argued that the workings of the human mind could be 
measured and their consequences studied by using the information¬ 
processing activities of computers as a model. 

• Behavioral psychologists found that animal and human behavior was 
inadequately explained by drives and needs and began to invoke the 
cognitions—the thoughts—of the individual to explain complex 

So the dominant theories in psychology shifted focus in the late 1960s 
from the power of the environment to individual expectation, preference, 
choice, decision, control, and helplessness. 

This fundamental change in the field of psychology is intimately related 
to a fundamental change in our own psychology. For the first time in 
history—because of technology and mass production and distribution, and 
for other reasons—large numbers of people are able to have a significant 



measure of choice and therefore of personal control over their lives. Not 
the least of these choices concerns our own habits of thinking. By and 
large, people have welcomed that control. We belong to a society that 
grants to its individual members powers they have never had before, 
a society that takes individuals’ pleasures and pains very seriously, that 
exalts the self and deems personal fulfillment a legitimate goal, an almost 
sacred right. 


With these freedoms have come perils. For the age of the self is 
also the age of that phenomenon so closely linked to pessimism: depression, 
the ultimate expression of pessimism. We are in the middle of an epidemic 
of depression, one with consequences that, through suicide, takes as many 
lives as the AIDS epidemic and is more widespread. Severe depression is 
ten times more prevalent today than it was fifty years ago. It assaults women 
twice as often as men, and it now strikes a full decade earlier in life on 
average than it did a generation ago. 

Until recently there were only two accepted ways of thinking about 
depression: the psychoanalytic and the biomedical. The psychoanalytic 
view is based on a paper that Sigmund Freud wrote almost seventy-five 
years ago. Freud’s speculations were built on very little observation and a 
very free use of imagination. He claimed that depression was anger turned 
against the self: The depressive disparages himself as worthless and wants 
to kill himself. The depressive, said Freud, learns to hate himself at his 
mother’s knee. One day early in the child’s life, the mother inevitably 
abandons the child, at least as the child sees it. (She goes off on vacation 
or stays out too late or has another child.) In some children this produces 
rage, but because the mother is too beloved to be the target of rage, the 
child turns it upon a more acceptable target—himself (or, more precisely, 
that part of himself that identifies with his mother). This becomes a de¬ 
structive habit. Now, whenever abandonment strikes again, he rages 
against himself rather than against the real perpetrator of the current loss. 
Self-loathing, depression as a reaction to loss, suicide—all follow neatly. 

In Freud’s view, you do not get rid of depression easily. Depression is 
a product of childhood conflicts that remain unresolved beneath frozen 
layers of defense. Only by breaking through those layers, Freud believed, 
and eventually resolving the ancient conflicts, can the tendency to depres¬ 
sion wane. Year after year of psychoanalysis—the therapist-guided struggle 

Two Ways of Looking at Life 11 

to gain insight into the childhood origins of turning rage upon the self— 
is Freud’s prescription for depression. 

For all its hold over the American (particularly the Manhattan) imagi¬ 
nation, I have to say that this view is preposterous. It dooms its victim to 
years of one-way conversation about the murky, distant past in order to 
overcome a problem that usually would have gone away by itself in a matter 
of months. In more than 90 percent of cases, depression is episodic: It 
comes and then it goes. The episodes last between three and twelve months. 
Although many thousands of patients have had hundreds of thousands of 
sessions, psychoanalytic therapy has not been demonstrated to work for 

Worse, it blames the victim. Psychoanalytic theory argues that because 
of character flaws, the victim brings depression upon himself. He wants to 
be depressed. He is motivated by the drive for self-punishment to spend 
endless days in misery, and to do away with himself if he can. 

I do not mean this critique as a general indictment of Freudian thinking. 
Freud was a great liberator. In his early work on hysteria—physical losses 
like paralysis with no physical cause—he dared to examine human sexuality 
and confront its darker aspects. However, his success in using the underside 
of sexuality to explain hysteria gave rise to a formula he used for the rest 
of his life. All mental suffering became a transmutation of some vile part 
of us, and to Freud the vile parts were us at our most basic and universal. 
This implausible premise, insulting as it is to human nature, began an 
epoch in which anything can be said: 

You want to have sex with your mother. 

You want to kill your father. 

You harbor fantasies that your newborn baby might die—because you 
want him to die. 

You want to spend your days in endless misery. 

Your most loathsome, inner secrets are what is most basic to you. 

Used in this manner, words lose their connection with reality; they be¬ 
come detached from emotion and from the common, recognized experience 
of mankind. Try saying any of these things to an armed Sicilian. 

The other, more acceptable view of depression is biomedical. Depres¬ 
sion, say the biological psychiatrists, is an illness of the body. It comes 
from an inherited biochemical defect—sited, perhaps, on an arm of chro¬ 
mosome number 11—that produces an imbalance of brain chemicals. Bi¬ 
ological psychiatrists treat depression with drugs or electroconvulsive 



therapy (“shock treatment”). These are quick, inexpensive, and moder¬ 
ately effective remedies. 

The biomedical view, unlike the psychoanalytic, is partly right. Some 
depressions seem to be the result of a poorly functioning brain, and to 
some extent they are inherited. Many depressions will respond (sluggishly) 
to antidepressant drugs and (briskly) to electroconvulsive therapy. But 
these victories are only partial and are a mixed blessing., Antidepressant 
drugs and high electrical current passing through the brain can have nasty 
side effects, which a large minority of depressed people pannot tolerate. 
Further, the biomedical view glibly generalizes from the Small number of 
hard-core, inherited depressions that usually respond to drugs to the much 
more common, everyday depressions that afflict so many lives. A very 
considerable proportion of depressed people have not inherited depression 
from their parents, and there is no evidence that milder depression can be 
relieved by taking drugs. 

Worst of all, the biomedical approach makes patients out of essentially 
normal people and makes them dependent on outside forces—pills dis¬ 
pensed by a benevolent physician. Antidepressant drugs are not addicting 
in the usual sense; the patient does not crave them when they are with¬ 
drawn. Rather, when the successfully treated patient stops taking his drugs, 
the depression often returns. The effectively drugged patient cannot credit 
himself for carving out his happiness and his ability to function with a 
semblance of normality; he must credit the pills. The antidepressant drugs 
are as good an example of our overmedicated society as the use of tran¬ 
quilizers to bring peace of mind or hallucinogens to see beauty. In each 
case, emotional problems that could be solved by one’s own skills and 
actions are turned over to an outside agent for solution. 

What if the great majority of depressions are much simpler than the 
biological psychiatrists and the psychoanalysts believe? 

• What if depression is not something you are motivated to bring upon 

yourself but something that just descends upon you? 

• What if depression is not an illness but a severe low mood? 

• What if you are not a prisoner of past conflicts in the way you react? 

What if depression is in fact set off by present troubles? 

• What if you are not a prisoner of your genes or your brain chemistry, 


• What if depression arises from mistaken inferences we make from 

Two Ways of Looking at Life 


the tragedies and setbacks we all experience over the course of a 

• What if depression occurs merely when we harbor pessimistic beliefs 

about the causes of our setbacks? 

• What if we can unlearn pessimism and acquire the skills of looking 

at setbacks optimistically? 


The traditional view of achievement, like the traditional view of 
depression, needs overhauling. Our workplaces and our schools operate 
on the conventional assumption that success results from a combination of 
talent and desire. When failure occurs, it is because either talent or desire 
is missing. But failure also can occur when talent and desire are present 
in abundance but optimism is missing. 

From nursery school on, there are frequent tests of talent^-IQ tests, 
SATs, MCATs, and so on—tests that many parents consider so important 
to their child's future that they pay to have the child instructed in the art 
of taking them. At every stage in life, these tests allegedly separate the 
competent from the less competent. While talent has proved to be roughly 
measurable, it has turned out to be depressingly hard to increase. Cram 
courses for SATs can raise pupils’ scores somewhat; they leave untouched 
the true level of talent. 

Desire is another matter; it can be boosted all too easily. Preachers 
inflame desire for salvation to white-hot in an hour or two. Clever adver¬ 
tising creates desire in a moment where none existed before. Seminars can 
hike motivation and leave employees pumped-up and exuberant. Yet all 
these ardors are ephemeral. Burning desire for salvation wanes without 
constant fanning; the fancy for one product is forgotten in minutes or is 
replaced by a new fancy. Pumping-up seminars work for a few days or 
weeks, then more pumping up is needed. 

BuTWHATiFthe traditional view of the components of success is wrong? 

• What if there is a third factor—optimism or pessimism—that matters 

as much as talent or desire? 

• What if you can have all the talent and desire necessary—yet, if you 

are a pessimist, still fail? 



• What if optimists do better at school, at work, and on the playing 


• What if optimism is a learned skill, one that can be permanently 


• What if we can instill this skill in our children? 


The traditional view of health turns out to be as flawed as the 
traditional view of talent. Optimism and pessimism affect health itself, 
almost as clearly as do physical factors. 

Most people assume that physical health is a wholly physical matter and 
that it is determined by constitution, health habits, and how completely 
you avoid germs. They believe that for the most part your constitution is 
the result of your genes, although you can enhance it with the right eating 
habits, with vigorous exercise, by avoiding cholesterol of the bad sort, by 
having regular checkups, by wearing seat belts. You can avoid illness by 
inoculation, rigorous hygiene, safe sex, staying away from people with 
colds, brushing your teeth three times a day, and the like. When someone’s 
health fails, therefore, it must be because he had a weak constitution, had 
poor health habits, or came across too many germs. 

This conventional view omits a major determinant of health—our own 
cognitions. Our physical health is something over which we can have far 
greater personal control than we probably suspect. For example: 

• The way we think, especially about health, changes our health. 

• Optimists catch fewer infectious diseases than pessimists do. 

• Optimists have better health habits than pessimists do. 

• Our immune system may work better when we are optimistic. 

• Evidence suggests that optimists live longer than pessimists. 

Depression, achievement, and physical health are three of the most 
obvious applications of learned optimism. But there is also the potential 
for a new understanding of yourself. 

By the end of this book, you will know how pessimistic or optimistic 
you are, and you will be able to measure your spouse’s and children’s 
optimism, if you wish. You will even be able to measure how pessimistic 
you used to be. You will know much more about why you get depressed— 

Two Ways of Looking at Life 


suffer from the blues or fall into really serious despair—and what maintains 
your depression. You will understand more about the times you have failed 
although you had the talent and desired the goal very much. You will also 
have learned a new set of skills to stop depression and prevent its return. 
You can choose to use these skills when you need them to help in your 
daily life. Evidence is now accumulating that they will improve your health. 
Further, you’ll be able to share these skills with people you care about. 

Most significantly, you will also gain an understanding of the new science 
of personal control. 

Learned optimism is not a rediscovery of the “power of positive 
thinking.” The skills of optimism do not emerge from the pink Sunday- 
school world of happy events. They do not consist in learning to say positive 
things to yourself. We have found over the years that positive statements 
you make to yourself have little if any effect. What is crucial is what you 
think when you fail, using the power of “non-negative thinking.” Changing 
the destructive things you say to yourself when you experience the setbacks 
that life deals all of us is the central skill of optimism. 

Most psychologists spend their lives working within traditional 
categories of problems: depression, achievement, health, political upsets, 
parenting, business organizations, and the like. I have spent my life trying 
to create a new category, which cuts across many of the traditional ones. 
I see events as successes or failures of personal control. 

Viewing things this way makes the world look quite different. Take an 
apparently unrelated collection of events: depression and suicide becoming 
commonplace; a society elevating personal fulfillment to a right; the race 
going not to the swift but to the self-confident; people suffering chronic 
illness frighteningly early in life and dying before their time; intelligent, 
devoted parents producing fragile, spoiled children; a therapy curing 
depression just by changing conscious thinking. Where others would see 
this melange of success and failure, suffering and triumph, as absurd and 
puzzling, I see it as all of a piece. This book, for better or worse, follows 
my lines of sight. 

We begin with the theory of personal control. I will introduce to you 
two principal concepts: learned helplessness and explanatory style. They 
are intimately related. 

Learned helplessness is the giving-up reaction, the quitting response that 
follows from the belief that whatever you do doesn’t matter. Explanatory 
style is the manner in which you habitually explain to yourself why events 
happen. It is the great modulator of learned helplessness. An optimistic 



explanatory style stops helplessness, whereas a pessimistic explanatory style 
spreads helplessness. Your way of explaining events to yourself determines 
how helpless you can become, or how energized, when you encounter the 
everyday setbacks as well as momentous defeats. I think of your explan¬ 
atory style as reflecting “the word in your heart.” 

Each of us carries a word in his heart, a “no” or a “yes.” You probably 
don’t know intuitively which word lives there, but you can learn, with a 
fair degree of accuracy, which it is. Soon you will test yourself and discover 
your own level of optimism or pessimism. 

Optimism has an important place in some, though not all, realms of your 
life. It is not a panacea. But it can protect you against depression; it can 
raise your level of achievement; it can enhance your physical well-being; 
it is a far more pleasant mental state to be in. Pessimism, on the other 
hand, also has its proper place, and you will And out more about its re¬ 
deeming aspect later in the book. 

If the tests indicate that you are a pessimist, that’s not the end of the 
matter. Unlike many personal qualities, basic pessimism is not fixed and 
unchangeable. You can learn a set of skills that free you from the tyranny 
of pessimism and allow you to use optimism when you choose. These skills 
are not mindlessly simple to acquire, but they can be mastered. The first 
step is to discover the word in your heart. Not coincidentally, that is also 
the initial step toward a new understanding of the human mind, one that 
has unfolded over the past quarter-century—an understanding of how an 
individual’s sense of personal control determines his fate. 


Learning to Be Helpless 

By the time I was thirteen, I had figured something out: Whenever my 
parents sent me to sleep over at my best friend Jeffrey’s house, that meant 
there was real trouble at home. The last time it had happened, I found 
out later that my mother had had a hysterectomy. This time I sensed my 
father was in trouble. Lately he had been acting strange. Usually he was 
calm and steady, just what I thought a father should be. Now he was often 
emotional, sometimes angry, sometimes weepy. 

Driving me over to Jeffrey’s that evening, through the darkening streets 
of residential Albany, New York, he suddenly drew a sharp breath, then 
pulled the car over to the curb. We sat there together silently, and finally 
he told me that for a minute or two he had lost all feeling on the left side 
of his body. I could detect the fear in his voice and I was terrified. 

He was only forty-nine, at the height of his powers. A product of the 
Great Depression, he had gone from outstanding achievement in law school 
to a secure civil-service job rather than risk trying for something that might 
pay better. Recently, he had decided to make the first bold move of his 
life: He was going to run for high office in the State of New York. I was 
enormously proud of him. 

I was also going through a crisis, the first of my young life. That fall my 
father had taken me out of public school, where I’d been content, and put 
me in a private military academy, because it was the only school in Albany 
that sent bright youngsters to good colleges. I soon realized I was the only 
middle-class boy in a school made up of rich boys, many of whom came 
from families that had been in Albany for 250 years or more. I felt rejected 
and alone. 



My father stopped the car at Jeffrey’s front walk, and I said good-bye 
to him, my heart in my throat. At dawn the next morning, I woke in a 
panic. Somehow I knew I had to get home, knew something was happening. 

I stole out of the house and ran the six blocks home. I got there in time 
to see a stretcher being carried down the front stairs. My father was on it. 
Watching from behind a tree, I saw that he was trying to be brave, but I 
could hear him gasping that he couldn’t move. He didn’t see me and never 
knew that I had witnessed his most awful moment. Three strokes followed, 
which left him permanently paralyzed and at the mercy of bouts of sadness 
and, bizarrely, euphoria. He was physically and emotionally helpless. 

I was not taken to visit him at the hospital or, for some time, at the 
Guilderland Nursing Home. Finally the day came. When I entered his 
room, I could tell he was as afraid as I was of my seeing him in his helpless 

My mother talked to him about God and the hereafter. 

“Irene,” he whispered, “I don’t believe in God. I don’t believe in any¬ 
thing after this. All I believe in is you and the children, and I don’t want 
to die.” 

This was my introduction to the suffering that helplessness engenders. 
Seeing my father in this state, as I did again and again until his death years 
later, set the direction of my quest. His desperation fueled my vigor. 

A year afterward, urged by my older sister, who regularly brought home 
her college reading to her precocious brother, I first read Sigmund Freud. 
I was lying in a hammock reading his Introductory Lectures. When I came 
to the section in which he speaks of people who frequently dream that 
their teeth are falling out, I felt a rush of recognition. I had had those 
dreams too! And I was stunned by his interpretation. For Freud, dreams 
of teeth falling out symbolize castration and express guilt over masturba¬ 
tion. The dreamer fears that the father will punish the sin of masturbation 
by castrating him. I wondered how he knew me so well. Little did I know 
then that, to produce this flash of recognition in the reader, Freud took 
advantage of the coincidence between the common occurrence of toothy 
dreams in adolescence and the even more common occurrence of mastur¬ 
bation. His explanation combined just enough spellbinding plausibility with 
tantalizing hints of more revelations to come. I determined in that moment 
that I wanted to spend my life asking questions like Freud’s. 

Some years later, when I went off to Princeton determined to become 
a psychologist or psychiatrist, I found out that Princeton’s psychology de¬ 
partment was undistinguished, while its philosophy department was world- 
class. Philosophy of mind and philosophy of science seemed allied. By the 
time I finished an undergraduate major in modern philosophy, I was still 

Learning to Be Helpless 


convinced that Freud’s questions were right. His answers, however, were 
no longer plausible to me, and his method—making giant leaps from a few 
cases—seemed dreadful. I had come to believe that only by experiment 
could science unravel the causes and effects involved in emotional problems 
such as helplessness—and then learn how to cure them. 

I went to graduate school to study experimental psychology. In the fall 
of 1964, an eager twenty-one-year-old with only a brand-new bachelor’s 
degree under my arm, I arrived in the laboratory of Richard L. Solomon 
at the University of Pennsylvania. I had desperately wanted to study under 
Solomon. Not only was he one of the world’s great learning theorists, he 
was also engaged in the very kind of work I wanted to do: He was trying 
to understand the fundamentals of mental illness by extrapolating from 
well-controlled experiments on animals. 

Solomon’s lab was in the Hare building, the oldest and grimiest building 
on the campus, and when I opened the rickety door I half expected it to 
fall off its hinges. I could see Solomon across the room, tall and thin, almost 
totally bald, immersed in what seemed to be his own private aura of in¬ 
tellectual intensity. But if Solomon was absorbed, everyone else in the lab 
was frantically distracted. 

His most senior graduate student, a friendly, almost solicitous Mid- 
westerner named Bruce Overmier, immediately volunteered an expla¬ 

“It’s the dogs,’’ said Bruce. “The dogs won’t do anything. Something’s 
wrong with them. So nobody can do any experiments.’’ He went on to say 
that over the past several weeks the laboratory dogs—being used in what 
he unilluminatingly called the “transfer” experiments—had had Pavlovian 
conditioning. Day after day they had been exposed to two kinds of stim¬ 
ulation—high-pitched tones and brief shocks. The tones and the shocks 
had been given to the dogs in pairs—first a tone and then a shock. The 
shocks weren’t too painful, the sort of minor jolt you feel when you touch 
a doorknob on a dry winter day. The idea was to get the dogs to associate 
the neutral tone and the noxious shock—to “pair” them—so that later, 
when they heard the tone, they would react to it as if it were a shock— 
with fear. That was all. 

After that, the main part of the experiment had begun. The dogs had 
been taken to a “two-compartment shuttlebox,” which is a large box with 
(as you might expect) two compartments in it, separated by a low wall. 
The investigators wanted to see if the dogs, now in the shuttlebox, would 
react to the tones the same way they had learned to react to shock—by 
jumping the barrier to get away. If they had, this would have shown that 
emotional learning could transfer across widely different situations. 



The dogs first had to learn to jump over the barrier to escape the shock; 
once they'd learned that, they could then be tested to see if tones alone 
evoked the same reaction. It should have been a cinch for them. To escape 
the shock, all they’d have to do was jump over the low barrier that divided 
the shuttlebox. Dogs usually learn this easily. 

These dogs, said Overmier, had just Iain down whimpering. They hadn’t 
even tried to get away from the shocks. And that, of course, meant that 
nobody could proceed with what they really wanted to do—test the dogs 
with the tones. 

As I listened to Overmier and then looked at the whimpering dogs, I 
realized that something much more significant had already occurred than 
any result the transfer experiment might produce: Accidentally, during the 
early part of the experiment, the dogs must have been taught to be helpless. 
That’s why they had given up. The tones had nothing to do with it. During 
Pavlovian conditioning they felt the shocks go on and off regardless of 
whether they struggled or jumped or barked or did nothing at all. They 
had concluded, or “learned,” that nothing they did mattered. So why try? 

I was stunned by the implications. If dogs could learn something as 
complex as the futility of their actions, here was an analogy to human 
helplessness, one that could be studied in the laboratory. Helplessness was 
all around us—from the urban poor to the newborn child to the despondent 
patient with his face to the wall. My father had his life destroyed by it. 
But no scientific study of helplessness existed. My mind raced on: Was this 
a laboratory model of human helplessness, one that could be used to 
understand how it comes about, how to cure it, how to prevent it, what 
drugs worked on it, and who was particularly vulnerable to it? 

Although it was the first time I had seen learned helplessness in the 
laboratory, I knew what it was. Others had seen it before, but thought of 
it as an annoyance, not as a phenomenon worthy of study in its own right. 
Somehow my life and experience—perhaps the impact that my father’s 
paralysis had had on me—had prepared me to see what it was. It would 
take the next ten years of my life to prove to the scientific community that 
what afflicted those dogs was helplessness, and that helplessness could be 
learned, and therefore unlearned. 

As excited as I was by the possibilities of this discovery, I was dejected 
about something else. The graduate students here gave shocks that were 
in some degree painful to perfectly innocent dogs. Could I work in this 
laboratory? I asked myself. I had always been an animal lover, particularly 
a dog lover, so the prospect of causing pain—if only minor pain—was very 
distasteful. I took a weekend off and went to share my doubts with one of 
my philosophy teachers. Though he was only a few years older than I, I 

Learning to Be Helpless 


regarded him as wise. He and his wife had always made time for me and 
helped me sort out the puzzles and contradictions that filled undergraduate 
life in the Sixties. 

“I’ve seen something in the lab that might be the beginning of under¬ 
standing helplessness,” I said. “No one has ever investigated helplessness 
before, yet I’m not sure I can pursue it, because I don’t think it’s right to 
give shock to dogs. Even if it’s not wrong, it’s repulsive.” I described my 
observations, where I thought they might lead, and, mostly, my misgivings. 

My professor was a student of ethics and of the history of science, and 
his line of questioning was informed by what he worked on. “Marty, do 
you have any other way of cracking the problem of helplessness? How 
about case studies of helpless people?” 

It was clear to both of us that case histories were a scientific dead end. 
A case study is an anecdote about the life of only one person. It provides 
no way of finding out what caused what; usually there isn’t even a way of 
finding out what really happened, except through the eyes of the narrator, 
who always has his own point of view and so distorts the narration. It was 
equally clear that only well-controlled experiments could isolate cause and 
discover cure. Further, there was no way I could ethically give trauma to 
other human beings. This seemed to leave only experiments with animals. 

“Is it ever justified,” I asked, “to inflict pain on any creature?” 

My professor reminded me that most human beings, as well as household 
pets, are alive today because animal experiments were carried out. Without 
them, he asserted, polio would still be rampant and smallpox widespread. 
“On the other hand,” he went on, “you know that the history of science 
is littered with unpaid promissory notes from basic research—assurances 
for techniques that were supposed to alleviate human misery but somehow 
never did. 

“Let me ask you two things about what you propose to do. First, is there 
a reasonable chance that you will eliminate much more pain in the long 
run than the pain you cause in the short run? Second, can scientists ever 
generalize from animals to people?” 

My answer to both these queries was yes. First, I believed I had a model 
that might unravel the mystery of human helplessness. If that could be 
done, the potential alleviation of pain would be substantial. And second, 
I knew that science had already developed a set of clear tests designed to 
tell when the generalization from animals is likely to work and when it is 
likely to fail. I resolved to do these tests. 

My professor warned me that scientists often get caught up in their own 
ambitions and conveniently forget the ideals they had when they started 
out. He asked me to make two resolutions: The day it became clear to me 



that I had found out the fundamentals of what I needed to know, I would 
stop working with dogs. The day I found the answers to the major questions 
that needed animals to answer them, I would stop working with animals 

I returned to the lab with high hopes for creating an animal model of 
helplessness. Only one other student, Steven Maier, believed that this goal 
made any sense at all. A shy, studious young man from the heart of the 
Bronx, Maier quickly became absorbed in the project. He had grown up 
in poverty and had stood out at the Bronx High School of Science. He 
knew what real-world helplessness was about, and he had a taste for strug¬ 
gle. He also had a keen sense that finding an animal model of helplessness 
was something worth devoting a career to. We thought of an experiment 
to show that animals could learn helplessness. We called it the “triadic” 
experiment, because it involved three groups yoked together. 

We would give the first group escapable shock: By pushing a panel with 
its nose, a dog in that group could turn off the shock. That dog would thus 
have control, because one of its responses mattered. 

The shock-giving device for the second group would be “yoked” to that 
for the first dogs: They would get exactly the same shocks as the first, but 
no response they made would have any effect. The shock a dog in the 
second group experienced would cease only when the “yoked” dog in the 
first group pushed its panel. 

A third group would get no shocks at all. 

Once the dogs went through that experience, each according to its cat¬ 
egory, all three would be taken to the shuttlebox. They should easily learn 
to jump over the barrier to escape from shock. We hypothesized, however, 
that if the dogs in the second group had learned that nothing they did 
mattered, they would just lie down in the shock and do nothing. 

Professor Solomon was openly skeptical. There was no room among 
psychology’s fashionable theories for the notion that animals—or people— 
could learn to be helpless. “Organisms,” said Solomon, when we went to 
him to discuss our project, “can learn responses only when the responses 
produce reward or punishment. In the experiments you propose, responses 
would be unrelated to reward or punishment. These would come regardless 
of what the animal did. This is not a condition that produces learning in 
any existing theory of learning.” Bruce Overmier joined in. “How can 
animals learn that nothing they do matters?” he asked. “Animals don’t 
have mental life of this high order; they probably don’t have any cognitions 
at all.” 

Both, though skeptical, remained supportive. They also urged us not to 
leap to any conclusions. It could be that the animals would fail to escape 

Learning to Be Helpless 


from shock for some other reason and not because they’d learned that 
responding is futile. The stress of the shock itself might make those dogs 
appear to give up. 

Steve and I felt the triadic experiment would test these possibilities also, 
since the groups that got escapable and inescapable shock would undergo 
identical amounts of physical stress. If we were right and helplessness 
was the crucial ingredient, only the dogs who got inescapable shock would 
give up. 

In early January of 1965, we exposed the first dog to shocks from which 
it could escape and the second dog to identical shocks from which it could 
not escape. The third dog was left alone. The next day, we took the dogs 
to the shuttlebox and gave all three shocks they could easily escape by 
hopping over the low barrier dividing one side of the box from the other. 

Within seconds the dog that had been taught to control shocks discovered 
that he could jump over the barrier and escape. The dog that earlier had 
received no shocks discovered the same thing, also in a matter of seconds. 
But the dog that had found that nothing it did mattered made no effort to 
escape, even though it could easily see over the low barrier to the shockless 
zone of the shuttlebox. Pathetically, it soon gave up and lay down, though 
it was regularly shocked by the box. It never found out that the shock 
could be escaped merely by jumping to the other side. 

We repeated this experiment on eight triads. Six of the eight dogs in the 
helpless group just sat in the shuttlebox and gave up, whereas none of the 
eight dogs in the group that had learned they could control shock gave up. 

Steve and I were now convinced that only inescapable events produced 
giving up, because the identical pattern of shock, if it was under the animal’s 
control, did not produce giving up. Clearly, animals can learn their actions 
are futile, and when they do, they no longer initiate action; they become 
passive. We had taken the central premise of learning theory—that learning 
occurs only when a response produces a reward or a punishment—and 
proved it wrong. 

Steve and I wrote up our finding, and to our surprise the editor of the 
Journal of Experimental Psychology , usually the most conservative of jour¬ 
nals, saw fit to make it the lead article. The gauntlet was thrown down to 
learning theorists the world over. Here were two callow graduate students 
telling the great B. F. Skinner, guru of behaviorism, and all his disciples 
that they were wrong in their most basic premise. 

The behaviorists did not blithely surrender. At our home department in 
the university, the most venerable professor—he himself had edited the 
Journal of Experimental Psychology for twenty years—wrote me a note 
saying that a draft of our article made him “physically sick.” At an inter- 



national meeting I was accosted by Skinner’s leading disciple—in a men’s 
room of all places—and informed that the animals “don’t learn that any¬ 
thing, they only learn responses.” 

There haven’t been many experiments in the history of psychology that 
can be called crucial, but Steve Maier, then only twenty-four years old, 
now constructed one. It was a courageous act, because Steve’s experiment 
frontally attacked a powerfully entrenched orthodoxy, behaviorism. For 
sixty years behaviorism had dominated American psychology. All the great 
figures in the field of learning were behaviorists, and for two generations 
almost every good academic job in psychology had gone to a behaviorist. 
All this although behaviorism was clearly farfetched. (Science often gets 
a lot of mileage out of the farfetched.) 

Just as with Freudianism, behaviorism’s main idea was counterintuitive 
(that is, it ran against common sense). The behaviorists insisted that all of 
a person’s behavior was determined only by his lifelong history of rewards 
and punishments. Actions that had been rewarded (a smile, for example, 
that had brought a caress) were likely to be repeated, and actions that had 
been punished were likely to be suppressed. And that was it. 

Consciousness—thinking, planning, expecting, remembering—has no ef¬ 
fect on actions. It’s like the speedometer on a car: It doesn’t make the car 
go, it just reflects what’s happening. The human being, said the behavior¬ 
ists, is entirely shaped by his external environment—by rewards and pun¬ 
ishments—rather than by his internal thoughts. 

It is hard to believe that intelligent people could have long subscribed 
to such an idea, but since the end of World War I, American psychology 
had been ruled by the dogmas of behaviorism. The appeal of this notion, 
so implausible on its face, is basically ideological. Behaviorism takes an 
enormously optimistic view of the human organism, one that makes prog¬ 
ress appealingly simple: All you have to do to change the person is to 
change the environment. People commit crimes because they are poor, 
and so if poverty is eliminated, crime will disappear. If you catch a thief, 
you can rehabilitate him by changing the contingencies in his life: Punish 
him for stealing and reward him for whatever constructive behavior he 
might display. Prejudice is caused by ignorance about the people you are 
prejudiced against and can be overcome by getting to know them. Stupidity 
is caused by deprivation of education and can be overcome by universal 

While the Europeans were taking a genetic approach to behavior— 
speaking in terms of character traits, genes, instincts, and so on—the Amer¬ 
icans embraced the notion that behavior was wholly determined by envi¬ 
ronment. It is more than happenstance that the two countries in which 
behaviorism flourished—the United States and the Soviet Union—are at 

Learning to Be Helpless 


least in theory the cradles of egalitarianism. “All men are created equal” 
and “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” 
were the ideological underpinnings of behaviorism as well as of the Amer¬ 
ican and Soviet political systems respectively. 

That is where things stood in 1965 when we prepared our counterattack 
against the behaviorists. We thought the behaviorist notion that it all comes 
down to rewards and punishments that strengthen associations was utter 
nonsense. Consider the behaviorists’ explanation of a rat bar-pressing for 
food: When a rat that had gotten food by pressing a bar proceeds to press 
the bar again, it’s because the association between bar-pressing and food 
has previously been strengthened by reward. Or the behaviorist explana¬ 
tion of human labor: A human being goes to work merely because the 
response of going to work has already been strengthened by reward, not 
because of any expectation of reward. The mental life of the person or the 
rat either does not exist or plays no causal role in the behaviorist worldview. 
In contrast, we believed that mental events are causal: The rat expects that 
pressing the bar will bring food; the human being expects that going to 
work will result in getting paid. We felt that most voluntary behavior is 
motivated by what you expect the behavior will result in. 

With regard to learned helplessness, Steve and I believed the dogs were 
just lying there because they had learned that nothing they did mattered— 
and they therefore expected that no actions of theirs would matter in the 

future. Once they formed this expectation, they would no longer engage 
in action. 

“Being passive can have two sources,” Steve pointed out in his incon¬ 
gruously soft Bronx accent to the increasingly critical members of our 
weekly research seminar. “Like old people in nursing homes, you can learn 
to become passive if it pays off. The staff is much nicer to you if you appear 
docile than if you are demanding. Or, you can become passive if you give 
up completely, if you believe that nothing at all you do—docile or de¬ 
manding—matters. The dogs are not passive because they’ve learned that 
passivity turns off the shock; rather, the dogs give up because they expect 
that nothing they do will matter.” 

The behaviorists couldn’t possibly say that the “helpless” dogs had 
learned an expectation that nothing they did would matter: Behaviorism, 
after all, maintained that the only thing an animal—or a human being— 
could ever learn was an action (or, in the jargon of the profession, a motor 
response); it could never le^arn a thought or an expectation. So the be¬ 
haviorists stretched for an explanation, arguing that something had hap¬ 
pened to the dogs to reward them for lying there; somehow the dogs must 
have been rewarded for just sitting still. 

The dogs were getting inescapable shock. There were moments, the 



behaviorists argued, when the dogs happened to be sitting as the shock 
ceased. The behaviorists said the cessation of pain at those moments was 
a reinforcer and strengthened sitting. The dogs now would sit even more, 
the behaviorists continued, and the shock would stop again, and this further 
reinforced sitting. 

This argument was the last refuge of a seriously considered (although, 
in my judgment, misguided) view. It could have been argued as easily that 
the dogs had not been rewarded for just sitting there, but punished—by 
the fact that the shock sometimes went on when the dogs were sitting; that 
should have punished sitting and suppressed it. The behaviorists ignored 
this logical hole in their argument and insisted the only thing the dogs had 
learned was a strong response of sitting still. We replied that it was clear 
the dogs, faced with shock they had no control over, were capable of 
processing information, with the result that they could learn that nothing 
they did mattered. 

It was at this point that Steve Maier created his brilliant test. “Let’s put 
the dogs through the very process that the behaviorists say will make them 
super-helpless,” Steve said. “They say the dogs are rewarded for staying 
still? Okay, we’ll reward them for staying still. Whenever they stay still 
for five seconds, we’ll turn off the shock.” Which is to say, the test would 
deliberately do exactly what the behaviorists had said was being done 

Behaviorists would predict that a reward for staying still would produce 
motionless dogs. Steve disagreed. “You and I know,” he said, “that the 
dogs will learn that simply staying still makes the shock stop. They’ll learn 
that they can stop the shock by staying motionless for five seconds. They’ll 
say to themselves, ‘Hey, I’ve really got plenty of control.’ And according 
to our theory, once dogs learn control, they’ll never become helpless.” 

Steve set up a two-part experiment. First, the dogs Steve called the 
Sitting-Still Group were to experience shock that would cease only if they 
stayed motionless for five seconds. They could control the shock by re¬ 
maining still. The second group, the so-called Yoked Group, would be 
shocked whenever the Sitting-Still Group was, but nothing the dogs in the 
Yoked Group did could affect their shock. It ceased only when the dogs 
in the Sitting-Still Group sat still. A third group was called the No-Shock 

The second part of the experiment involved taking all the dogs to the 
shuttlebox to learn to jump away from shock. Behaviorists would predict 
that when shock came on, the dogs in both the Sitting-Still Group and the 
Yoked Group would stand still and appear to be helpless—because both 
groups had previously been rewarded by experiencing relief from shock 

Learning to Be Helpless 


while staying still. Of those two groups, behaviorists predicted, the Sitting- 
Still Group would become the more intently still, because they’d been 
consistently rewarded for stillness, while the dogs of the Yoked Group 
only occasionally had been. Behaviorists would also say that the No-Shock 
Group would be unaffected. 

We cognitivists disagreed. We predicted that the Sitting-Still Group, 
learning they had control over when shock ceased, would not become 
helpless. When they had a chance to jump over the barrier in the shuttle- 
box, they would readily do so. We also predicted that most of the Yoked 
Group would become helpless, and that, of course, the No-Shock Group 
would be unaffected and escape shock nimbly in the shuttlebox. 

So we took the dogs through the first part of the experiment and then 
took them to the shuttlebox. Here’s what happened: 

The majority of the Yoked-Group dogs just lay there, as both factions 
would have predicted. The No-Shock-Group dogs were unaffected. As for 
the Sitting-Still-Group dogs, when they got in the shuttlebox they stood 
motionless for a few seconds, waiting for the shock to stop. When it didn’t, 
they danced around a bit, trying to find some other passive way to turn 
off the shock. They soon concluded there was none and promptly jumped 
over the barrier. 

When worldviews clash, as the views of the behaviorists and the cog¬ 
nitivists had clashed over learned helplessness, it is very hard to construct 
an experiment that leaves the other side without an answer. That is what 
twenty-four-year-old Steve Maier had managed to do. 

The behaviorists’ acrobatic attempts reminded me of the matter of the 
epicycles. Renaissance astronomers had been perplexed by Tycho Brahe’s 
careful observations of the heavens. Every so often the planets seemed to 
retreat along the paths they had just taken. Astronomers who believed the 
sun traveled around the earth explained these retreats by means of *'‘epi¬ 
cycles”—small circles within the great circle, onto which, they theorized, 
heavenly bodies would periodically detour. As more observations were 
recorded, the traditional astronomers had to postulate ever more epicycles. 
Eventually, those who believed the earth traveled in a circle around the 
sun (it actually has an elliptical course) vanquished the earth-centrists, 
simply because their view required fewer epicycles and was therefore tidier. 
The phrase “adding epicycles’’ came to be applied to scientists in any field 
who, having trouble defending a tottering thesis, desperately postulate 
unlikely subtheses in hopes of buttressing it. 

Our findings, along with those of thinkers like Noam Chomsky, Jean 
Piaget, and the information-processing psychologists, served to expand the 
field of inquiry to the mind and to drive the behaviorists into full retreat. 



By 1975 the scientific study of mental processes in people and animals 
displaced the behavior of rats as the favorite subject of doctoral 

Steve Maier and I had now found out how to produce learned help¬ 
lessness. But, having caused it, could we cure it? 

We took a group of dogs that had been taught to be helpless, and we 
dragged those poor, reluctant animals back and forth across the shuttlebox, 
over the barrier and back again, until they began to move under their own 
steam and came to see that their own actions worked. Once they did, the 
cure was one hundred percent reliable and permanent. 

We worked on prevention and discovered a phenomenon we called “im¬ 
munization”: Learning beforehand that responding matters actually pre¬ 
vents learned helplessness. We even found that dogs taught this mastery 
as puppies were immunized to learned helplessness all their lives. The 
implications of that, for human beings, were thrilling. 

We had now established the basics of the theory, and, as I’d resolved 
that day at Princeton when my professor and I had discussed the ethics of 
animal experimentation, Steve Maier and I stopped our dog experiments. 

Vulnerability and Invulnerability 

Our papers now appeared regularly. Learning theorists reacted pre¬ 
dictably: with incredulity, not a little anger, and heated criticism. That 
controversy, a rather technical and tedious one, has gone on for twenty 
years, and somehow we seem to have won it. Even obdurate behaviorists 
eventually began to teach their students about learned helplessness and to 
do research on it. 

The most constructive reactions came from scientists interested in ap¬ 
plying learned helplessness to problems of human suffering. One of the 
most intriguing came from Donald Hiroto, a thirty-year-old Japanese- 
American graduate student at Oregon State University. Hiroto was looking 
for a dissertation project and asked for the details of what we had done. 
“I want to try it with people, rather than dogs or rats,” he wrote, “and 
see if it really applies to the human condition. My professors are very 

Hiroto set out to do with people experiments parallel to those we had 
done with dogs. He first took one group of people to a room, turned on 

Learning to Be Helpless 


loud noise, and gave them the task of learning how to turn it off. They 
tried every combination on the panel of buttons at their fingertips, but the 
noise was unstoppable. No pattern of button pressing would turn it off. 
Another group of people could turn off the noise by pushing the right 
pattern of buttons. Still another group was subjected to no noise at all. 

Later Hiroto took the people to a room in which there was a shuttlebox. 
You put your hand on one side, and there is an annoying whooshing sound; 
move your hand to the other side, and the noise stops. 

One afternoon in 1971, Hiroto called me. 

“Marty,” he said, “I think we’ve got some results that mean something 
. . . maybe a lot. The people we gave inescapable noise to back at the 
beginning, when they put their hand in the ‘shuttlebox,’ would you believe 
it, most of th$m just sat there!” I could tell Hiroto was excited, though 
he was trying to maintain professional composure. “It was as if they’d 
learned they were helpless to turn off noise, so they didn’t even try, even 
though everything else—the time and place, all that—had changed. They 
carried that noise-helplessness right through to the new experiment. But 
get this: All the other people—the ones who first got escapable noise or 
no noise—they learned to turn the noise off quite easily!” 

I felt this might well be the culmination of years of inquiry, years of 
work. If people could be taught to be helpless in the face of a trivial 
irritation such as noise, then perhaps it was true that people out in the 
world, experiencing instances when their actions are futile, experiencing 
serious shocks, were being taught helplessness too. Perhaps human reaction 
to loss in general—rejection by those we have loved, failure at work, death 
of a spouse—could be understood through the learned helplessness 

According to Hiroto’s findings, one out of every three people whom he 
had tried to make helpless did not succumb. That was powerfully signifi¬ 
cant. One out of three of our animals, too, did not become helpless fol¬ 
lowing inescapable shock. Subsequent tests, using Bill Cosby records that 
went on and off regardless of what the people did, or nickels that unpre- 
dictably dropped out of slot machines, supported Hiroto’s findings. 

Hiroto’s tqst produced another fascinating result: About one in ten of 
the people who received no shock just sat in the “shuttlebox” from the 
outset, not moving, doing nothing about the aggravating noise. This again 

* I hasten to<note that the people in these and all other helplessness experiments involving 
human beings didn’t leave the lab in a state of depression. At the end of the session the 
subject would be shown that the noise was rigged or the problem unsolvable. His symptoms 
would disappear. 



was a strong parallel to our animal tests. One in ten of our animals also 
was helpless from the start. 

Our satisfaction was quickly replaced by fierce curiosity. Who gives up 
easily and who never gives up? Who survives when his work comes to 
nothing or when he is rejected by someone he has loved long and deeply? 
And why ? Clearly, some people don’t prevail; like helpless dogs, they 
crumple up. And some do prevail; like the indomitable experimental sub¬ 
jects, they pick themselves up and, with life somewhat poorer, manage to 
go on and rebuild. Sentimentalists call this '’a triumph of the human will” 
or “the courage to be”—as if such labels explained it. 

Now, after seven years of experiments, it was clear to us that the re¬ 
markable attribute of resilience in the face of defeat need not remain a 
mystery. It was not an inborn trait; it could be acquired. Exploring the 
colossal implications of that discovery is what I have worked on for the 
last decade and a half. 


Explaining Misfortune 

Oxford University is an intimidating place to give a lecture. It’s not 
so much the spires and gargoyles, or even the knowledge that for over 
seven hundred years this place has led the intellectual world. It’s Oxford’s 
dons. They had turned out in force that day in April 1975 to hear the 
upstart American psychologist who was on sabbatical at Maudsley Hos¬ 
pital’s Institute of Psychiatry in London and who had traveled to Oxford 
to talk about his research. As I arranged my speech on the rostrum and 
looked nervously out into the hall, I could see the ethologist Niko Tin¬ 
bergen, a 1973 Nobel laureate. I could see Jerome Bruner, a celebrated 
academic who had recently come to Oxford from Harvard to take the 
Regius professorship in child development. There too was Donald Broad- 
bent, the founder of modem cognitive psychology and the foremost “ap¬ 
plied” social scientist in the world, and Michael Gelder, the dean of British 
psychiatry. And there was Jeffrey Gray, the renowned expert on anxiety 
and the brain. These were the greats of my profession. I felt like an actor 
who has been pushed out onto a stage to do a soliloquy before Guinness, 
Gielgud, and Olivier. 

I launched into my speech about learned helplessness, and I was relieved 
to find the dons reasonably responsive, some of them nodding at my con¬ 
clusions, most of them chuckling at my jokes. But in the middle of the 
front row was an intimidating stranger. He was not laughing at my jokes, 
and at several crucial points he conspicuously shook his head no. He seemed 
to be keeping a running total of mistakes I had unknowingly made. 

At last the speech was finished. The applause was appreciative, and I 
was relieved, for the occasion was now over except for the polite platitudes 



traditionally offered by the professor assigned to be the “discussant.” The 
discussant, however, turned out to be the naysayer from the front row. 
His name was given as John Teasdale. I had heard the name before but 
knew almost nothing about him. Teasdale, it proved, was a new lecturer 
in the psychiatry department, fresh up from the psychology department at 
Maudsley Hospital in London. 

“You really shouldn’t be carried away by this enchanting story,” he told 
the audience. “The theory is wholly inadequate. Seligman has glossed over 
the fact that one-third of his human subjects never become helpless. Why 
not? And of the ones who did, some bounced back right away; others 
never recovered. Some were helpless only in the very situation they learned 
to be helpless about; they no longer tried to escape from noise. Yet others 
gave up in brand-new situations. Let us ask ourselves why. Some lost self¬ 
esteem and blamed themselves for failing to escape the noise, while others 
blamed the experimenter for giving them unsolvable problems. Why?” 

Baffled looks appeared on many of the dons’ faces. Teasdale’s piercing 
critique had thrown everything into doubt. Ten years of research, which 
had looked definitive to me when I began the talk, now seemed full of 
loose ends. 

I was almost dumbstruck. I thought Teasdale was right, and I was em¬ 
barrassed I hadn’t thought of these objections myself. I mumbled some¬ 
thing about this being the way science progresses and by way of rejoinder 
asked if Teasdale himself could solve the paradox he had set before me. 

“Yes, I think I can,” he said. “But this is neither the time nor the place.” 

I won’t yet reveal Teasdale’s solution, for I am going to ask you first to 
take a short test, one that will help you discover whether you are an optimist 
or a pessimist. Knowing Teasdale’s answer to the question of why some 
people never become helpless might distort the way you take that test. 

Test Your Own Optimism 

Take as much time as you need to answer each of the questions. On average 
the test takes about fifteen minutes. There are no right or wrong answers. 
It is important that you take the test before you read the analysis which 
follows it, in order to assure that your answers will not be biased. 

Read the description of each situation and vividly imagine it happening 
to you. You have probably not experienced some of the situations, but 
that doesn’t matter. Perhaps neither response will seem to fit; go ahead 
anyway and circle either A or B, choosing the cause likelier to apply to 

Explaining Misfortune 


you. You may not like the way some of the responses sound, but don't 
choose what you think you should say or what would sound right to other 
people; choose the response you’d be likelier to have. 

Circle only one response for each question. Ignore the letter and number 
codes for now. 

1. The project you are in charge of is a great success. 


A. I kept a close watch over everyone's work. i 

B. Everyone devoted a lot of time and energy to it. o 

2. You and your spouse (boyfriend/girlfriend) make up after 
a fight. 


A. I forgave him/her. o 

B. I'm usually forgiving. i 

3. You get lost driving to a friend’s house. 


A. I missed a turn. 1 

B. My friend gave me bad directions. o 

4. Your spouse (boyfriend/girlfriend) surprises you with a gift. 


A. He/she just got a raise at work. o 

B. I took him/her out to a special dinner the night before. 1 

5. You forget your spouse’s (boyfriend’s/girlfriend’s) 


A. I'm not good at remembering birthdays. 1 

B. I was preoccupied with other things. o 

6. You get a flower from a secret admirer. 


A. I am attractive to him/her. o 

B. I am a popular person. 1 



7. You run for a community office position and you win. 


A. I devote a lot of time and energy to campaigning. 0 

B. I work very hard at everything / do. l 

8. You miss an important engagement. 


A. Sometimes my memory fails me. I 

B. I sometimes forget to check my appointment book. 0 

9. You run for a community office position and you lose. 


A. I didn't campaign hard enough. 1 

B. The person who won knew more people. 0 

10. You host a successful dinner. 


A. I was particularly charming that night. 0 

B. I am a good host. I 

11. You stop a crime by calling the police. 


A. A strange noise caught my attention. 0 

B. I was alert that day. 1 

12. You were extremely healthy all year. 


A. Few people around me were sick , so / wasn't exposed. 0 

B. I made sure / ate well and got enough rest. 1 

13. You owe the library ten dollars for an overdue book. 


A. When / am really involved in what I am reading , I often 

forget when it's due. 1 

B. I was so involved in writing the report that I forgot to 

return the book. 0 

14. Your stocks make you a lot of money. 


A. My broker decided to take on something new. 0 

B. My broker is a top-notch investor. 1 

Explaining Misfortune 


15. You win an athletic contest. 


A. I was feeling unbeatable. 0 

B. I train hard. 1 

16. You fail an important examination. 


A. I wasn't as smart as the other people taking the exam. 1 

B. I didn't prepare for it well. 0 

17. You prepared a special meal for a friend and he/she barely 
touched the food. 


A. I wasn't a good cook. 1 

B. I made the meal in a rush. 0 

18. You lose a sporting event for which you have been training 
for a long time. 


A. I'm not very athletic. 1 

B. I'm not good at that sport. 0 

19. Your car runs out of gas on a dark street late at night. 


A. I didn't check to see how much gas was in the tank. 1 

B. The gas gauge was broken. 0 

20. You lose your temper with a friend. 


A. He/she is always nagging me. 1 

B. He/she was in a hostile mood. 0 

21. You are penalized for not returning your income-tax forms 
on time. 


A. I always put off doing my taxes. 1 

B. I was lazy about getting my taxes done this year. 0 



22. You ask a person out on a date and he/she says no. 


A. I was a wreck that day. I 

B. I got tongue-tied when / asked him/her on the date. o 

23. A game-show host picks you out of the audience to par¬ 
ticipate in the show. 


A. I was sitting in the right seat. 0 

B. I looked the most enthusiastic. 1 

24. You are frequently asked to dance at a party. 


A. I am outgoing at parties. 1 

B. I was in perfect form that night. 0 

25. You buy your spouse (boyfriend/girlfriend) a gift and he/ 
she doesn’t like it. 


A. I don’t put enough thought into things like that. 1 

B. He!she has very picky tastes. 0 

26. You do exceptionally well in a job interview. 


A. I felt extremely confident during the interview. 0 

B. I interview well. 1 

27. You tell a joke and everyone laughs. 


A. The joke was funny. 0 

B. My timing was perfect. 1 

28. Your boss gives you too little time in which to finish a 
project, but you get it finished anyway. 


A .lam good at my job. 0 

B. I am an efficient person. 1 

Explaining Misfortune 


29. You’ve been feeling run-down lately. 


A. I never get a chance to relax. 1 

B. I was exceptionally busy this week. 0 

30. You ask someone to dance and he/she says no. 


A. I am not a good enough dancer. I 

B. He!she doesn’t like to dance. 0 

31. You save a person from choking to death. 


A. I know a technique to stop someone from choking. 0 

B. I know what to do in crisis situations. 1 

32. Your romantic partner wants to cool things off for a while. 


A. I’m too self-centered. 1 

B. I don’t spend enough time with him/her. 0 

33. A friend says something that hurts your feelings. 


A. She always blurts things out without thinking of others. 1 

B. My friend was in a bad mood and took it out on me. 0 

34. Your employer comes to you for advice. 


A. I am an expert in the area about which I was asked. 0 

B .lam good at giving useful advice. 1 

35. A friend thanks you for helping him/her get through a bad 


A. I enjoy helping him/her through tough times. 0 

B. I care about people. 1 

36. You have a wonderful time at a party. 


A. Everyone was friendly. 0 

B. I was friendly. 1 



37. Your doctor tells you that you are in good physical shape. 


A. I make sure / exercise frequently. 0 

B .lam very health-conscious. 1 

38. Your spouse (boyfriend/girlfriend) takes you away for a 
romantic weekend. 


A. He/she needed to get away for a few days. 0 

B. He!she likes to explore new areas. 1 

39. Your doctor tells you that you eat too much sugar. 


A. I don't pay much attention to my diet. 1 

B. You can't avoid sugar, it's in everything. 0 

40. You are asked to head an important project. 


A. I just successfully completed a similar project. 0 

B. I am a good supervisor. 1 

41. You and your spouse (boyfriend/girlfriend) have been fight¬ 
ing a great deal. 


A. I have been feeling cranky and pressured lately. 1 

B. He!she has been hostile lately. 0 

42. You fall down a great deal while skiing. 


A. Skiing is difficult. 1 

B. The trails were icy. 0 

43. You win a prestigious award. 


A. I solved an important problem. 0 

B. I was the best employee. 1 

44. Your stocks are at an all-time low. 


A. I didn't know much about the business climate at the time. 1 

B. I made a poor choice of stocks. 0 

Explaining Misfortune 


45. You win the lottery. 


A. It was pure chance. 0 

B. I picked the right numbers. 1 

46. You gain weight over the holidays and you can’t lose it. 


A. Diets don't work in the long run. 1 

B. The diet I tried didn't work. 0 

47. You are in the hospital and few people come to visit. 


A. Tm irritable when I am sick. 1 

B. My friends are negligent about things like that. 0 

48. They won’t honor your credit card at a store. 


A. I sometimes overestimate how much money I have. 1 

B. I sometimes forget to pay my credit-card bill. 0 


PmB_ PmG_ 

PvB_ PvG_ 


PsB_ PsG_ 

Total B_ Total G_ 


Put the test aside for the moment. You will score it later, as we go along 
through the rest of this chapter. 



Explanatory Style 

When JohnTeasdale raised his objections after my speech at Oxford, 
I felt for a moment as if years of work might have been for nothing. I had 
no way of knowing at the time that the Teasdale challenge would result 
in the thing I wanted most of all—using our findings to help needful and 
suffering human beings. 

Yes, Teasdale had granted in his rebuttal, two out of three people became 
helpless. But, he’d stressed, one out of three resisted: No matter what 
happened to them to make them helpless, they would not give up. It was 
a paradox, and until it was resolved, my theory could not be taken seriously. 

Leaving the hall with Teasdale after the address, I asked him if he’d be 
willing to work with me to see if we could construct an adequate theory. 
He agreed, and we began meeting regularly. I’d come down from London 
and we’d take long walks through the manicured Oxford grounds and the 
tree-lined meadows called The Backs, talking out his objections. I asked 
for his solution to the problem he had posed, about who is vulnerable to 
helplessness and who is not. I learned that for Teasdale the solution came 
down to this: how people explain to themselves the bad things that happen 
to them. People who made certain kinds of explanations, he believed, are 
prey to helplessness. Teaching them to change these explanations might 
prove an effective way to treat their depression. 

Every two months or so during this period in England, I made week- 
long trips back to the United States. On my first trip I returned to the 
University of Pennsylvania to find that my theory was being assaulted by 
challenges almost identical to Teasdale’s. The challengers were two fearless 
students in my own research group, Lyn Abramson and Judy Garber. 

Lyn and Judy had both been caught up in a vogue—enthusiasm for the 
work of a man named Bernard Weiner. In the late 1960s Weiner, a young 
social psychologist at the University of California’s Los Angeles campus, 
had started to wonder why some people are high achievers and other people 
are not. He concluded that the way people think about the causes of 
successes and failures was what really mattered. His approach was called 
attribution theory. (That is, it asked to what factors people attributed their 
successes and failures.) 

This view ran against the existing belief about achievement, the classic 
demonstration of which was called PREE—the partial reinforcement ex¬ 
tinction effect. PREE is an old chestnut of learning theory. If you give a 
rat a food pellet every time he presses a bar, this is called “continuous 

Explaining Misfortune 


reinforcement”; the ratio of reward to effort is one-to-one, one pellet for 
one bar-press. If you then stop giving him food for pressing the bar (“ex¬ 
tinction”), he’ll press the bar three or four times and then quit completely, 
because he can see he’s never getting fed anymore, since the contrast is 
so great. If, on the other hand, instead of one-for-one reinforcement, you 
give the rat “partial” reinforcement—say, an average of only one pellet 
for every five or ten times he presses—and then start extinction, he’ll press 
the bar a hundred times before he gives up. 

PREE had been demonstrated in the 1930s. It was the kind of experiment 
that made the reputation of B. F. Skinner and established him as the 
panjandrum of the behaviorists. The PREE principle, however, though it 
worked with rats and pigeons, didn’t work very well with people. Some 
would give up as soon as extinction began; others would keep going. 

Weiner had an idea why it didn’t work with people: Those people who 
thought the cause of extinction was permanent (who concluded, for ex¬ 
ample, “The experimenter has decided not to reward me anymore”) would 
give up right away, while those who thought the cause was temporary 
(“There’s a short circuit in this damned equipment”) would keep on going, 
because they thought the situation might change and the reward would 
resume. When Weiner performed this experiment, he found just the results 
he predicted. It was the explanations people made, and not the schedule 
of reinforcement they’d been on, which determined their susceptibility to 
PREE. Attribution theory went on to postulate that human behavior is 
controlled not just by the “schedule of reinforcement” in the environment 
but by an internal mental state, the explanations people make for why the 
environment has scheduled their reinforcements in this way. 

This work had great impact in the field, especially upon younger scholars 
like Lyn Abramson and Judy Garber. It had shaped their whole outlook, 
and it was the lens through which they examined the theory of learned 
helplessness. When, during my first trip home from England, I told my 
colleagues what John Teasdale had said, Lyn and Judy replied that he was 
right and I was wrong, and the theory would have to be reformulated. 

Lyn Abramson had shown up at Penn only the year before, as a first- 
year graduate student. She was immediately recognized as one of the best 
young psychology scholars anyone had seen in years. Outward signs to the 
contrary notwithstanding—her unworldly appearance, her patched jeans, 
her torn cotton shirts—she had a first-class mind. She first set out to discover 
which drugs produced learned helplessness in animals and which made 
helplessness less likely. She was trying to show that depression and help¬ 
lessness were the same by showing they had the same brain-chemical 



Judy Garber had dropped out of a clinical psychology program at a 
southern university during a time of personal crisis. Putting her life back 
together, she had volunteered to work in my lab unpaid for several years. 
She’d told me she wanted to show the world she could make a real con¬ 
tribution to psychology there, so she could eventually apply to a first-rate 
graduate program. The people in the lab always did a double take when 
they saw this fashionably dressed young woman with long, painted finger¬ 
nails feeding white rats their daily chow. But Judy’s ability, like Lyn’s, 
soon became manifest, and before long she was involved in more advanced 
matters. That spring of 1975 Judy too was working on helplessness in 
animals. When the challenge from Teasdale came along, both Lyn and 
Judy dropped their own projects and began to work with us on reformu¬ 
lating the theory so it would apply better to people. 

Throughout my career, I’ve never had much use for the tendency among 
psychologists to shun criticism. It’s a longstanding tradition acquired from 
the field of psychiatry, with its medical authoritarianism and its reluctance 
to admit error. Going back at least to Freud, the world of the research 
psychiatrists has been dominated by a handful of despots who treat dis¬ 
senters like invading barbarians usurping their domain. One critical word 
from a young disciple and he was banished. 

I’ve preferred the humanistic tradition. To the scientists of the Renais¬ 
sance, your critic was really your ally, helping you advance upon reality. 
Critics in science are not like drama critics, determining flops and successes. 
Criticism to scientists is just another means of finding out whether they’re 
wrong, like running another experiment to see if it confirms or refutes a 
theory. Along with the advocacy principle of the courtroom, it is one of 
the best ways human beings have evolved to get closer to the truth. 

I had always stressed to my students the importance of welcoming crit¬ 
icism. “I want to be told,” I had always said. “In this lab, the payoff is 
for originality, not toadyism.” Now Abramson and Garber, not to mention 
Teasdale, had told me, and I was not about to bristle with hostility. I 
promptly enlisted the three of them as allies in making the theory better. 
I argued with my two brilliant students, sometimes for twelve hours without 
a break, working to make my theory incorporate their objections. 

I launched into two sets of conversations. The first, in Oxford, was with 
Teasdale. John’s commitment was to therapy, and so, as we discussed how 
to change the theory, we explored the possibility of treating depression by 
changing the ways depressive people explained to themselves the causes 
of bad events. The second, with Abramson and Garber back in Philadel¬ 
phia, took its character from Lyn’s strong interest in the etiology—the 
causes—of mental illness. 

Teasdale and I started writing a manuscript together, on how therapy 

Explaining Misfortune 


for helplessness and depression should be based on changing people’s ex¬ 
planations. Concurrently, Abramson and I started one on how people’s 
explanatory style could cause helplessness and depression. 

At that moment, as it happened, the editor-in-chief of the Journal of 
Abnormal Psychology contacted me. The learned-helplessness contro¬ 
versy, he said, had generated a great many submissions to the journal, 
many of them attacks of just the sort John and Lyn and Judy had made. 
The editor was planning to devote a whole issue of the journal to the battle, 
and he asked if I would write one of the articles. I agreed and then per¬ 
suaded Lyn and John to let me merge the two articles we had been working 
on separately. I felt it important that when the new theory got this very 
prominent airing, it would already contain our responses to the attacks. 

Our approach drew on Bernard Weiner’s attribution theory, but it dif¬ 
fered from Weiner in three ways. First, we were interested in habits of 
explanation, not just the single explanation a person makes for a single 
failure. We claimed there was such a thing as a style of explanation: We 
all had a style of seeing causes, and if given a chance we’d impose this 
habit on our world. Second, where Weiner had talked about two dimen¬ 
sions of explanation—permanence and personalization—we introduced an¬ 
other—pervasiveness—to make three. (I’ll soon explain these concepts.) 
Third, while Weiner was interested in achievement, we were focused on 
mental illness and therapy. 

The special issue of the Journal of Abnormal Psychology was published 
in February 1978. It contained the article by Lyn, John, and me, answering 
in advance the main objections to the original learned-helplessness theory. 
It was well received and itself generated even more research than the 
original helplessness theory had. We went on to devise the questionnaire 
you took earlier in this chapter. With the creation of the questionnaire, 
explanatory style could be easily measured and our approach applied, out 
in the real world beyond the lab, to actual human problems. 

Each year the American Psychological Association gives the Early Ca¬ 
reer Award to a psychologist who attains ''distinguished scientific achieve¬ 
ment” within the first ten years of his career. I had won it in 1976 for the 
theory of helplessness. Lyn Abramson won it in 1982 for the reformulation 
of the theory of helplessness. 

Who Never Gives Up? 

How do you think about the causes of the misfortunes, small and large, 
that befall you? Some people, the ones who give up easily, habitually say 



of their misfortunes: “It’s me, it’s going to last forever, it’s going to un¬ 
dermine everything I do.’’ Others, those who resist giving in to misfortune, 
say: “It was just circumstances, it’s going away quickly anyway, and, be¬ 
sides, there’s much more in life.’’ 

Your habitual way of explaining bad events, your explanatory style, is 
more than just the words you mouth when you fail. It is a habit of thought, 
learned in childhood and adolescence. Your explanatory style stems di¬ 
rectly from your view of your place in the world—whether you think you 
are valuable and deserving, or worthless and hopeless. It is the hallmark 
of whether you are an optimist or a pessimist. 

The test you took earlier in this chapter is designed to reveal your 
explanatory style. 

There are three crucial dimensions to your explanatory style: perma¬ 
nence, pervasiveness, and personalization. 


People who give up easily believe the causes of the bad events that 
happen to them are permanent: The bad events will persist, will always be 
there to affect their lives. People who resist helplessness believe the causes 
of bad events are temporary. 

PERMANENT (Pessimistic): 

“I’m all washed up.’’ 

“Diets never work.’’ 

“You always nag.’’ 

“The boss is a bastard.’’ 
“You never talk to me.’’ 

TEMPORARY (Optimistic): 

“I’m exhausted.’’ 

“Diets don’t work when you eat 

“You nag when I don’t clean my 

“The boss is in a bad mood.’’ 

“You haven’t talked to me 

If you think about bad things in always*s and never*s and abiding traits, 
you have a permanent, pessimistic style. If you think in sometimes*s and 
lately*s y if you use qualifiers and blame bad events on transient conditions, 
you have an optimistic style. 

Now turn back to your test. Look at the eight items marked “PmB” 
(which stands for Permanent Pad), the questions numbered 5, 13, 20, 21, 
29, 33 , 42, and 46. 

Explaining Misfortune 


These tested how permanent you tend to think the causes of bad events 
are. Each one with a o after it is optimistic. Each one followed by a / is 
pessimistic. So, for example, if you chose “I'm not good at remembering 
birthdays” (question 5) rather than “I was preoccupied with other things” 
to explain why you forgot your spouse's birthday, you chose a more per¬ 
manent, and therefore pessimistic, cause. 

Total the numbers at the right-hand margin of the PmB questions. Write 
your total on the PmB line in the scoring key on page 39. 

If you totaled 0 or 1, you are very optimistic on this dimension; 

2 or 3 is a moderately optimistic score; 

4 is average; 

5 or 6 is quite pessimistic; and 

if you scored 7 or 8, you will find Part Three of this book, “Changing: 

From Pessimism to Optimism,” very helpful. 

Here's why the permanence dimension matters so much—and here is 
our answer to John Teasdale's challenge about why some people stay 
helpless forever while others bounce back right away. 

Failure makes everyone at least momentarily helpless. It's like a punch 
in the stomach. It hurts, but the hurt goes away—for some people almost 
instantly. These are the people whose score totals 0 or 1. For others, the 
hurt lasts; it seethes, it roils, it congeals into a grudge. These people score 
7 or 8. They remain helpless for days or perhaps months, even after only 
small setbacks. After major defeats they may never come back. 

The optimistic style of explaining good events is just the opposite of 
the optimistic style of explaining bad events. People who believe good events 
have permanent causes are more optimistic than people who believe they 
have temporary causes. 

TEMPORARY (Pessimistic): PERMANENT (Optimistic): 

“It’s my lucky day.” “I’m always lucky.” 

“I try hard.” “I’m talented.” 

“My rival got tired.” “My rival is no good.” 

Optimistic people explain good events to themselves in terms of per¬ 
manent causes: traits, abilities, always*s . Pessimists name transient causes: 
moods, effort, sometimes*s. 

You probably noticed that some of the questions on the test (exactly 
half of them, in fact) were about good events; for example, “Your stocks 



make you a lot of money.” Score those marked “PmG” (Permanent Good): 
2, io, 14, 15, 24, 26, 38, and 40. 

The ones with a / following them are the permanent, optimistic answers. 
Total the numbers on the right-hand side. Write the total on the line in 
the scoring key marked “PmG” (page 39). 

If your total is 7 or 8, you are very optimistic about the likelihood of 
good events continuing; 

6 is a moderately optimistic score; 

4 or 5 is average; 

3 is moderately pessimistic; and 
0, 1, or 2 is very pessimistic. 

People who believe good events have permanent causes try even harder 
after they succeed. People who see temporary reasons for good events may 
give up even when they succeed, believing success was a fluke. 

Pervasiveness: Specific vs. Universal 

Permanence is about time. Pervasiveness is about space. 

Consider this example: In a large retailing firm, half the accounting 
department was fired. Two of the fired accountants, Nora and Kevin, both 
became depressed. Neither could bear to look for another job for several 
months, and both avoided doing their income tax or anything else that 
reminded them of accounting. Nora, however, remained a loving and active 
wife. Her social life went on normally, her health stayed robust, and she 
continued to work out three times a week. Kevin, in contrast, fell apart. 
He ignored his wife and baby son, spending all his evenings in sullen 
brooding. He refused to go to parties, saying he couldn’t bear to see people. 
He never laughed at jokes. He caught a cold that lasted all winter, and he 
gave up jogging. 

Some people can put their troubles neatly into a box and go about their 
lives even when one important aspect of it—their job, for example, or 
their love life—is suffering. Others bleed all over everything. They catas- 
trophize. When one thread of their lives snaps, the whole fabric unravels. 

It comes down to this: People who make universal explanations for their 
failures give up on everything when a failure strikes in one area. People 
who make specific explanations may become helpless in that one part of 
their lives yet march stalwartly on in the others. 

Here are some universal and some specific explanations of bad events: 

Explaining Misfortune 


UNIVERSAL (Pessimistic) SPECIFIC (Optimistic) 

“All teachers are unfair.” “Professor Seligman is unfair.” 

“I’m repulsive.” “I’m repulsive to him.” 

“Books are useless.” “This book is useless.” 

Nora and Kevin had the same high score on the permanence dimension 
of the test. They were both pessimists in this respect. When they were 
fired, they both remained depressed for a long time. But they had opposite 
scores on the pervasiveness dimension. Kevin believed the firing would 
undermine everything he tried; he thought he was no good at anything. 
Nora believed bad events have very specific causes. When she was fired, 
she thought she was no good at accounting. 

On those long Oxford walks with John Teasdale, we took the paradox 
he cited—about who gives up and who doesn’t—broke it into three parts, 
and made three predictions about who gives up and who doesn’t: 

The first was that the permanence dimension determines how long a 
person gives up for. Permanent explanations for bad events produce long- 
lasting helplessness and temporary explanations produce resilience. 

The second prediction was about pervasiveness. Universal explanations 
produce helplessness across many situations and specific explanations pro¬ 
duce helplessness only in the troubled area. Kevin was a victim of the 
pervasiveness dimension. Once fired he believed the cause was universal, 
and he behaved as though disaster had struck all aspects of his life. Kevin’s 
pervasiveness score revealed he was a catastrophizer. The third prediction 
concerned personalization and you will read about it shortly. 

Do you catastrophize? Did you catastrophize in this test? For example, 
in answering question 18, did you label the cause of losing as your not 
being very athletic (universal) or your not being good at that sport (spe¬ 
cific)? Take each question marked “PvB” (Pervasiveness Pad): 8, 16, 17, 
18, 22, 32, 44, and 48. 

Add the numbers at the right-hand margin and write the total on the 
scoring-key line marked “PvB” (page 39). 

A total of 0 or I is very optimistic; 

2 or 3 is a moderately optimistic score; 

4 is average; 

5 or 6 is moderately pessimistic; and 

7 or 8 is very pessimistic. 

Now for the converse. The optimistic explanatory style for good events 
is opposite that for bad events. The optimist believes that bad events have 



specific causes, while good events will enhance everything he does; the 
pessimist believes that bad events have universal causes and that good 
events are caused by specific factors. When Nora was offered temporary 
work back at the company, she thought: “They finally realized they can’t 
get along without me.” When Kevin got the same offer he thought: “They 
must really be shorthanded.” 

SPECIFIC (Pessimistic) 
“I’m smart at math.” 

“My broker knows oil stocks.” 
“I was charming to her.” 

UNIVERSAL (Optimistic) 
“I’m smart.” 

“My broker knows Wall Street.” 
“I was charming.” 

Score your optimism for pervasiveness of good events. Look at each 
item marked “PvG”: 6, 7, 28, 31, 34, 35, 37, and 43. 

Each answer followed by a 0 is pessimistic (specific). When asked in 
question 35 for your reaction to a friend’s thanks for helping him, did you 
answer, “I enjoy helping him through tough times” (specific and pessi¬ 
mistic) or “I care about people” (universal and optimistic)? 

Total your score and write it on the line labeled “PvG.” 

A score of 7 or 8 is very optimistic; 

6 is a moderately optimistic score; 

4 or 5 is average; 

3 is moderately pessimistic; and 

0, 1, or 2 is very pessimistic. 

The Stuff of Hope 

Hope has largely been the province of preachers, of politicians, and of 
hucksters. The concept of explanatory style brings hope into the laboratory, 
where scientists can dissect it in order to understand how it works. 

Whether or not we have hope depends on two dimensions of our ex¬ 
planatory style: pervasiveness and permanence. Finding temporary and 
specific causes for misfortune is the art of hope: Temporary causes limit 
helplessness in time, and specific causes limit helplessness to the original 
situation. On the other hand, permanent causes produce helplessness far 
into the future, and universal causes spread helplessness through all your 
endeavors. Finding permanent and universal causes for misfortune is the 
practice of despair. 

Explaining Misfortune 



“I’m stupid.” “I’m hung over.” 

“Men are tyrants.” “My husband was in a bad 


“It’s five in ten this lump is “It’s five in ten this lump is 
cancer.” nothing.” 

Perhaps the single most important score from your test is your hope 
(HoB) score. Take your “PvB” total and add it to your “PmB” total. This 
is your hope score for bad events. 

If it is o, i, or 2, you are extraordinarily hopeful; 

3, 4, 5, or 6 is a moderately hopeful score; 

7 or 8 is average; 

9, io, or ii is moderately hopeless; and 

12, 13, 14, 15, or 16 is severely hopeless. 

People who make permanent and universal explanations for their trou¬ 
bles tend to collapse under pressure, both for a long time and across 

No other single score is as important as your hope score. 

Personalization: Internal vs. External 

There is one final aspect of explanatory style: personalization. 

I once lived with a woman who blamed everything on me. Bad restaurant 
meals, late flights, even imperfect creases in her dry-cleaned trousers. 
“Sweetheart,” I said one day, in exasperation after being bawled out be¬ 
cause her hair dryer didn’t work, “you are the most external person for 
bad events I’ve ever met.” 

“Yes,” she shouted, “and it’s all your fault!” 

When bad things happen, we can blame ourselves (internalize) or we 
can blame other people or circumstances (externalize). People who blame 
themselves when they fail have low self-esteem as a consequence. They 
think they are worthless, talentless, and unlovable. People who blame 
external events do not lose self-esteem when bad events strike. On 
the whole, they like themselves better than people who blame them¬ 
selves do. 

Low self-esteem usually comes from an internal style for bad events. 



INTERNAL (Low self-esteem) 
“I’m stupid.” 

“I have no talent at poker.” 
“I’m insecure.” 

EXTERNAL (High self-esteem) 
“You’re stupid.” 

“I have no luck at poker.” 
“I grew up in poverty.” 

Take a look at your PsB (Personalization Pad) scores; the questions are 
3 . 9 . 19 , 25 , 30, 39, 41, and 47. 

The items followed by a i are pessimistic (internal, or personal). Total 
your score and write it in the PsB box in the scoring key on page 39. 

A score of 0 or 1 indicates very high self-esteem; 
2 or 3 indicates moderate self-esteem; 

4 is average; 

5 or 6 indicates moderately low self-esteem; and 
7 or 8 indicates very low self-esteem. 

Of the three dimensions of explanatory style, personalization is the easi¬ 
est to understand. After all, one of the first things a child learns to say is 
“He did it, not me!” Personalization is also the easiest dimension to 
overrate. It controls only how you feel about yourself, but pervasiveness 
and permanence—the more important dimensions—control what you do: 
how long you are helpless and across how many situations. 

Personalization is the only dimension simple to fake. If I tell you to talk 
about your troubles in an external way now, you will be able to do it— 
even if you are a chronic internalizes You can chatter along, pretending 
to blame your troubles on others. However, if you are a pessimist and I 
tell you to talk about your troubles as having temporary and specific causes, 
you will not be able to do it (unless you have mastered the techniques of 
Part Three, “Changing: From Pessimism to Optimism”). 

Here’s one last piece of information for you, before you get your totals: 
The optimistic style of explaining good events is the opposite of that used 
for bad events: It's internal rather than external. People who believe they 
cause good things tend to like themselves better than people who believe 
good things come from other people or circumstances. 

EXTERNAL (Pessimistic) INTERNAL (Optimistic) 

“A stroke of luck. . . .” “I can take advantage of luck.” 

“My teammates’ skill. . . .” “My skill. . . .” 

Your last score is PsG, Personalization Good. The relevant questions 
are 1,4, 11, 12, 23, 27, 36, and 45. 

Explaining Misfortune 


The items followed by a 0 are external and pessimistic. Those followed 
by a / are internal and optimistic. 

Write your total score on the line marked “PsG” in the scoring key on 
page 39. 

A score of 7 or 8 is very optimistic; 

6 is a moderately optimistic score; 

4 or 5 is average; 

3 is moderately pessimistic; and 
0, 1, or 2 is very pessimistic. 

You can now compute your overall scores. 

First, add the three B 's (PmB + PvB + PsB). This is your Total B (bad 
event) score. 

Next, add your three G scores (PmG + PvG + PsG). This is your Total 
G (good event) score. 

Subtract B from G. This is your overall score (G-B). 

Here is what your totals mean: 

If your B score is from 3 to 6, you are marvelously optimistic and you 
won’t be needing the “Changing” chapters; 

If it’s in the 6 to 9 range, you’re moderately optimistic; 

10 or 11 is about average; 

12 to 14 is moderately pessimistic; and 
anything above 14 cries out for change. 

If your G score is 19 or above, you think about good events very 

if it’s from 17 to 19 your thinking is moderately optimistic; 

14 to 16 is about average; 

11 to 13 indicates that you think quite pessimistically; and 
a score of 10 or less indicates great pessimism. 

Finally, if your G-B score is above 8, you are very optimistic across 
the board; 

if it’s from 6 to 8 you’re moderately optimistic; 

3 to 5 is average; 

1 or 2 is a moderately pessimistic score; and 
a score of 0 or below is very pessimistic. 



Caveat about Responsibility 

Although there are clear benefits to learning optimism—there are also 
dangers. Temporary? Local? That’s fine. I want my depressions to be short 
and limited. I want to bounce back quickly. But external? Is it right that 
I should blame others for my failures? 

Most assuredly we want people to own up to the messes they make, to 
be responsible for their actions. Certain psychological doctrines have dam¬ 
aged our society by helping to erode personal responsibility: Evil is mis¬ 
labeled insanity; bad manners are shucked off as neurosis; 4 'successfully 
treated” patients evade their duty to their families because it does not bring 
them personal fulfillment. The question is whether or not changing beliefs 
about failure from internal to external (“It’s not my fault . . . it’s bad 
luck”) will undermine responsibility. 

I am unwilling to advocate any strategy that further erodes responsibility. 
I don’t believe people should change their beliefs from internal to external 
wholesale. Nevertheless, there is one condition under which this usually 
should be done: depression. As we will see in the next chapter, depressed 
people often take much more responsibility for bad events than is 

There is a deeper matter to deal with here: the question of why people 
should own up to their failures in the first place. The answer, I believe, is 
that we want people to change, and we know they will not change if they 
do not assume responsibility. If we want people to change, internality is 
not as crucial as the permanence dimension is. If you believe the cause of 
your mess is permanent—stupidity, lack of talent, ugliness—you will not 
act to change it. You will not act to improve yourself. If, however, you 
believe the cause is temporary—a bad mood, too little effort, overweight— 
you can act to change it. If we want people to be responsible for what they 
do, then yes, we want them to have an internal style. More important, 
people must have a temporary style for bad events—they must believe that 
whatever the cause of the bad event, it can be changed. 

What If You Are a Pessimist? 

It matters a great deal if your explanatory style is pessimistic. If you 
scored poorly, there are four areas where you will encounter (and probably 

Explaining Misfortune 


already have encountered) trouble. First, as we will see in the next chapter, 
you are likely to get depressed easily. Second, you are probably achieving 
less at work than your talents warrant. Third, your physical health—and 
your immune function—are probably not what they should be, and this 
may get even worse as you get older. Finally, life is not as pleasurable as 
it should be. Pessimistic explanatory style is a misery. 

If your pessimism score is in the average range, it will not be a problem 
in ordinary times. But in crisis, in the hard times life deals us all, you will 
likely pay an unnecessary price. When these events strike, you may find 
yourself getting more depressed than you should. How are you likely to 
react when your stocks go down, when you are rejected by someone you 
love, when you don’t get the job you want? As the next chapter shows, 
you will become very sad. The zest will go out of living. It will be very 
hard for you to get started on anything challenging. The future will look 
bleak to you. And you will be likely to feel this way for weeks or even 
months. You have probably felt this way several times already; most people 
have. This is so common that textbooks call it a normal reaction. 

The commonness of being knocked flat by troubles, however, does not 
mean it is acceptable or that life has to be this way. If you use a different 
explanatory style, you’ll be better equipped to cope with troubled times 
and keep them from propelling you toward depression. 

That hardly exhausts the prospective benefits of a new explanatory style. 
If you have an average degree of pessimism, you are going through life at 
a level somewhat lower than your talents would otherwise permit you. As 
you will see in chapters six, eight, and nine, even an average degree of 
pessimism drags down your performance in school, on the job, and in 
sports. This is true of physical health as well. Chapter ten illustrates how 
even if you are just ordinarily pessimistic, your health may not be up to 
par. You will likely suffer the chronic diseases of aging earlier and more 
severely than necessary. Your immune system may not work as well as it 
should; you will probably suffer more infectious diseases and recuperate 
more slowly. 

If you use the techniques of chapter twelve, you will be able to choose 
to raise your everyday level of optimism. You should find yourself reacting 
to the normal setbacks of life much more positively and bouncing back 
from life’s large defeats much more briskly than you did before. You should 
achieve more on the job, in school, and on the playing field. And in the 
long run, even your body should serve you better. 

Ultimate Pessimism 

When in a pessimistic, melancholy state, we are going through a mild 
version of a major mental disorder: depression. Depression is pessimism 
writ large, and to understand pessimism, a subtle phenomenon, it helps to 
look at the expanded, exaggerated form. This is the technique used by 
author and illustrator David Macaulay to show us how small everyday 
devices work. In one of his best-selling books, for example, he shows us 
how a wristwatch functions by drawing the mechanisms of an immense, 
vastly expanded watch, all of whose parts are big and easily distinguishable, 
and walking us through the insides. A study of depression similarly illu¬ 
minates pessimism. Depression is worth studying in its own right, but it 
also has a great deal to reveal to people who are concerned merely with 
the mindset we call pessimism. 

Almost all of us have gone through depression and know how it poisons 
daily life. For some it is a rare experience, descending on us only when 
several of our best hopes all collapse at once. For many of us, it is more 
familiar, a state that afflicts us every time we are defeated. For still others, 
it is a constant companion, draining the joy from even our best times and 
darkening the grayer times to an unrelieved black. 

Until recently, depression was a mystery. Who was most at risk, where 
it came from, how to make it lift—all were enigmas. Today, thanks to 
twenty-five years of intensive scientific research on the part of hundreds 
of psychologists and psychiatrists around the world, the shape of the an- 
swets to these questions is known. 

Depression comes in three kinds. The first is called normal depression, 
and it is the type each of us knows well. It springs from the pain and loss 

Ultimate Pessimism 


that are inevitable parts of being members of a sapient species, creatures 
who think about the future. We don’t get the jobs we want. Our stocks 
go down. We get rejected by people we love; our spouses die. We give 
bad lectures and write bad books. We age. When such losses occur, what 
happens next is regular and predictable: We feel sad and helpless. We 
become passive and lethargic. We absolutely believe that our prospects 
are bleak and that we lack the talent to make them brighter. We don’t do 
our work well, and we may be absent from it frequently. The zest goes 
out of activities we used to enjoy, and we lose our interest in food, com¬ 
pany, sex. We can’t sleep. 

But after a while, by one of nature’s benevolent mysteries, we start to 
get better. Normal depression is extremely common—it’s the common cold 
of mental illness. I have repeatedly found that at any moment approxi¬ 
mately 25 percent of us are going through an episode of normal depression, 
at least in mild form. 

The two other kinds of depression are called depressive disorders: uni¬ 
polar and bipolar depression. These provide everyday work for clinical 
psychologists and psychiatrists. What determines the difference between 
them is whether or not mania is involved. Mania is a psychological condition 
with a set of symptoms that look like the opposite of depression: unwar¬ 
ranted euphoria, grandiosity, frenetic talk and action, and inflated self¬ 

Bipolar depression always involves manic episodes; it is also called 
manic-depression (with mania as one pole and depression as the other). 
Unipolar depressives never have manic episodes. Another difference be¬ 
tween the two is that bipolar depression is much more heritable. If one of 
two identical twins has bipolar depression, there is a 72 percent chance the 
other also has it. (This is true of only 14 percent of fraternal twins. Fraternal 
twins are no more closely related than any other full siblings, but they are 
born at the same time and raised together by the same parents, so a 
comparison between the two types of twins helps us separate what is learned 
from what is genetically inherited.) Bipolar depression is exquisitely re¬ 
sponsive to a “wonder drug,” lithium carbonate. In more than 80 percent 
of cases of bipolar depression, lithium will relieve the mania to a marked 
extent and, to a lesser extent, the depression. Unlike normal and unipolar 
depression, manic-depression is an illness, appropriately viewed as a dis¬ 
order of the body and treated medically. 

The question arises whether unipolar depression, also a certified disor¬ 
der, and normal depression are related. I believe they are the same thing, 
differing only in the number of symptoms and their severity. One person 
may be diagnosed as having unipolar depression and be labeled a patient, 



while another, held to be suffering from acute symptoms of normal depres¬ 
sion, may not be considered a patient. The distinction between these two 
is shallow. It may be a distinction in how readily two people will seek 
therapy, or in whether their insurance policies cover unipolar depression, 
or in how comfortably they can bear the stigma of being labeled a patient. 

My view radically differs from the prevailing medical opinion, which 
holds that unipolar depression is an illness and normal depression just a 
passing demoralization of no clinical interest. This view is the dominant 
one in spite of a complete absence of evidence that unipolar depression is 
anything more than just severe normal depression. No one has established 
the kind of distinction between them that has been established between 
dwarfs, for instance, and short normal people—a qualitative distinction. 

The clincher, I feel, is that normal depression and unipolar depression 
are recognized in exactly the same way. Both involve the same four types 
of negative change: in thought, mood, behavior, and physical responses. 

I remember a certain student of mine, whom Til call Sophie. She'd 
entered the University of Pennsylvania with a superb high school record. 
She had been president of her class, its salutatorian, and a popular, pretty 
cheerleader. Everything she wanted fell into her lap. Good grades came 
with no effort and boys competed for her affections. She was an only child, 
doted on by her parents, both of them professionals; her successes were 
their triumphs, her failures their agonies. Her friends nicknamed her 
“Golden Girl.” 

When I first met her, in therapy in her junior year, she was no longer 
a golden girl. Her romantic life and her academic life were a mess, and 
she was calamitously depressed. Like most depressives, she had sought 
therapy not after one traumatic event but after a series of discontents that 
had been accumulating over several months. She said she felt “empty.” 
She felt there was no hope for her because she was “unlovable” and 
“untalented,” and “a washout.” Her classes were boring, the whole aca¬ 
demic system a “conspiracy to stifle” her creativity, and her feminist activity 
a “pointless fraud.” In her last semester, she’d gotten two F’s. She couldn’t 
get started on any of her projects. When she sat down at her desk to start 
her homework, she couldn’t decide which of the growing piles to tackle 
first. She would stare at the piles for about fifteen minutes, then give up 
in despair and switch on the TV. She was currently living with a dropout. 
She felt exploited and worthless whenever they had sex, and the sexual 
activity that used to bring her ecstasy was little better than disgusting to 
her now. 

Her major was philosophy, and she’d become particularly attracted to 
existentialism. She accepted the doctrine that life was absurd, and this too 
filled her with despair. 

Ultimate Pessimism 


I reminded her she was a talented student and an attractive woman, and 
she burst into tears. “I fooled you too!” she cried. 

As I have said, one of the four criteria of depression is a negative 
change in thought. The way you think when you are depressed differs from 
the way you think when you are not depressed. When you are depressed 
you have a dour picture of yourself, the world, and the future. Sophie’s 
future looked hopeless to her, and she attributed this to her lack of talent. 

When you’re depressed, small obstacles seem like insurmountable bar¬ 
riers. You believe everything you touch turns to ashes. You have an endless 
supply of reasons why each of your successes is really a failure. The stack 
of papers on Sophie’s desk looked like a mountain to her. 

Aaron Beck, one of the world’s leading therapists, had a patient who, 
in the middle of a deep depression, had managed to wallpaper a kitchen. 
The patient saw this achievement as a failure: 

Therapist: Why didn’t you rate wallpapering the kitchen as a mastery 

Patient: Because the flowers didn’t line up. 

Therapist: You did in fact complete the job? 

Patient: Yes. 

Therapist: Your kitchen? 

Patient: No, I helped a neighbor do his kitchen. 

Therapist: Did he do most of the work? 

Patient: No, I really did almost all of it. He hadn’t wallpapered before. 
Therapist: Did anything else go wrong? Did you spill paste all over? 

Ruin a lot of wallpaper? Leave a big mess? 

Patient: No, the only problem was that the flowers didn’t line up. 
Therapist: Just how far off was the alignment of the flowers? 

Patient (holding his fingers about an eighth of an inch apart): About 
this much. 

Therapist: On each strip of paper? 

Patient: No ... on two or three pieces. 

Therapist: Out of how many? 

Patient: About twenty or twenty-five. 

Therapist: Did anyone else notice it? 

Patient: No. In fact my neighbor thought it was great. 

Therapist: Could you see the defect when you stood back and looked 
at the whole wall? 

Patient: Well, not really. 



The patient considered the well-done job a failure because in his view, he 
just couldn’t get anything right. 

A pessimistic explanatory style is at the core of depressed thinking. A 
negative concept of the future, the self, and the world stems from seeing 
the causes of bad events as permanent, pervasive, and personal, and seeing 
the causes of good events in the opposite way. My depressed student 
Sophie, for example, blamed her troubles on her lack of talent, her un¬ 
attractiveness, and the purposelessness of existence. The wallpaperer saw 
the minor alignment problem as an indication of his whole being. 

The second way we recognize both unipolar and normal depression is a 
negative change in mood. When you are depressed, you feel awful: sad, 
discouraged, sunk in a pit of despair. You may cry a lot, or you may be 
beyond tears; on her worst days Sophie would stay in bed sobbing until 
lunchtime. Life goes sour. Formerly enjoyable activities become savorless 
mockeries. Jokes are no longer funny but unbearably ironic. 

A depressed mood is not usually unbroken. It changes with time of day. 
Typically it is near its worst just when you wake up. Thoughts of your past 
defeats and of the losses the new day is sure to bring may overwhelm you 
while you are lying in bed. If you stay in bed, your mood will lie upon you 
like a clammy sheet. Getting up and beginning the day lightens the mood, 
which usually improves as the day goes on, although it will worsen again 
a bit during the low time of your basic rest and activity cycle (BRAC), 
usually from three to six p.m. Evening is likely to be the least depressed 
time of day. Three to five a.m., if you are awake, is the worst. 

Sadness is not the only mood of depression; anxiety and irritability are 
often present. But when depression gets very intense, anxiety and hostility 
drop away and the sufferer becomes numb and blank. 

The third symptom of depression concerns behavior. The depressive 
shows three behavioral symptoms: passivity, indecisiveness, and suicidal 

Depressed people often cannot get started on any but the most routine 
tasks, and they give up easily when impeded. A novelist can’t get the first 
word written. When he finally does manage to get going, he quits writing 
when the screen on his word processor flickers, and he doesn’t go back 
for a month. 

Depressed people cannot decide among alternatives. A depressed stu¬ 
dent phones for a pizza and, when asked if he wants it plain or with a 
topping, stares paralyzed at the receiver. After fifteen seconds of silence, 
he hangs up. Sophie couldn’t get started on her homework; she couldn’t 
even decide what subject to study first. 

Many depressed people think about and attempt suicide. They generally 

Ultimate Pessimism 


have one or both of two motives. The first is surcease: The prospect of 
going on as they are is intolerable, and they want to end it all. The other 
is manipulation: They want to get love back, or get revenge, or have the 
last word in an argument. 

The final symptom of depression has to do with the physical self. Depres¬ 
sion is often accompanied by undesirable physical symptoms; the more 
severe the depression, the more symptoms. The appetites diminish. You 
can’t eat. You can’t make love. Sophie found sex, formerly the high point 
of her relationship with the young man she lived with, repugnant. Even 
sleep is affected: You wake up too early and toss and turn, trying unsuc¬ 
cessfully to get back to sleep. Finally the alarm clock goes off, and you 
begin the new day not just depressed but exhausted. 

These four symptoms—negative changes in thought, mood, behavior, 
and physical response—diagnose depression, whether unipolar or normal. 
To be considered depressed, you don’t need to have all four symptoms, 
and it’s not necessary that any particular symptom be present. The more 
symptoms you have, however, and the more intense each is, the more 
certain you can be the problem is depression. 

Test Your Depression 

How depressed are you right now? 

I want you now to take a widely used test for depression, developed by 
Lenore Radloff at the Center for Epidemiological Studies of the National 
Institute of Mental Health. This test, called the CES-D (Center for Epi¬ 
demiological Studies-Depression), covers all the symptoms of depression. 
Circle the answer which best describes how you have felt over the past 

During the past week 

i. I was bothered by things that usually don’t bother me. 
o Rarely or none of the time (less than I day). 

1 Some or a little of the time (1-2 days). 

2 Occasionally or a moderate amount of the time (3-4 days). 

3 Most or all of the time ( 5-7 days). 



2. I did not feel like eating; my appetite was poor. 

o Rarely or none of the time (less than I day). 

1 Some or a little of the time (1-2 days). 

2 Occasionally or a moderate amount of the time ( 3-4 days). 

3 Most or all of the time (3-7 days). 

3. I felt that I could not shake off the blues even with help from my 
family and friends. 

0 Rarely or none of the time (less than 1 day). 

1 Some or a little of the time (1-2 days).' 

2 Occasionally or a moderate amount of the time (3-4 days). 

3 Most or all of the time (3-7 days). 

4. I felt that I was not as good as other people. 

0 Rarely or none of the time (less than 1 day). 

1 Some or a little of the time (1-2 days). 

2 Occasionally or a moderate amount of the time (3-4 days). 

3 Most or all of the time (3-7 days). 

5. I had trouble keeping my mind on what I was doing. 

0 Rarely or none of the time (less than 1 day). 

1 Some or a little of the time (1-2 days). 

2 Occasionally or a moderate amount of the time (3-4 days). 

3 Most or all of the time (3-7 days). 

6. I felt depressed. 

0 Rarely or none of the time (less than 1 day). 

1 Some or a little of the time (1-2 days). 

2 Occasionally or a moderate amount of the time (3-4 days). 

3 Most or all of the time (3-7 days). 

7. I felt that everything I did was an effort. 

0 Rarely or none of the time (less than 1 day). 

1 Some or a little of the time (1-2 days). 

2 Occasionally or a moderate amount of the time (3-4 days). 

3 Most or all of the time (3-7 days). 

8. I felt hopeless about the future. 

0 Rarely or none of the time (less than 1 day). 

1 Some or a little of the time (1-2 days). 

Ultimate Pessimism 


2 Occasionally or a moderate amount of the time (3-4 days). 

3 Most or all of the time (5-7 days). 

9. I thought my life had been a failure. 

0 Rarely or none of the time (less than 1 day). 

1 Some or a little of the time (1-2 days). 

2 Occasionally or a moderate amount of the time (3-4 days). 

3 Most or all of the time (3-7 days). 

10. I felt fearful. 

0 Rarely or none of the time (less than 1 day). 

1 Some or a little of the time (1-2 days). 

2 Occasionally or a moderate amount of the time (3-4 days). 

3 Most or all of the time (5-7 days). 

11. My sleep was restless. 

0 Rarely or none of the time (less than 1 day). 

1 Some or a little of the time (1-2 days). 

2 Occasionally or a moderate amount of the time (3-4 days). 

3 Most or all of the time (3-7 days). 

12. I was unhappy. 

0 Rarely or none of the time (less than 1 day). 

1 Some or a little of the time (1-2 days). 

2 Occasionally or a moderate amount of the time (3-4 days). 

3 Most or all of the time (3-7 days). 

13. I talked less than usual. 

0 Rarely or none of the time (less than 1 day). 

1 Some or a little of the time (1-2 days). 

2 Occasionally or a moderate amount of the time (3-4 days). 

3 Most or all of the time (3-7 days). 

14. I felt lonely. 

0 Rarely or none of the time (less than 1 day). 

1 Some or a little of the time (1-2 days). 

2 Occasionally or a moderate amount of the time (3-4 days). 

3 Most or all of the time (3-7 days). 

15. People were unfriendly. 

0 Rarely or none of the time (less than 1 day). 


1 Some or a little of the time (1-2 days). 

2 Occasionally or a moderate amount of the time (3-4 days). 

3 Most or all of the time (5-7 days). 

16. I did not enjoy life. 

0 Rarely or none of the time (less than 1 day). 

1 Some or a little of the time (1-2 days). 

2 Occasionally or a moderate amount of the time (3-4 days). 

3 Most or all of the time (5-7 days). 

17. I had crying spells. 

0 Rarely or none of the time (less than 1 day). 

1 Some or a little of the time (1-2 days). 

2 Occasionally or a moderate amount of the time (3-4 days). 

3 Most or all of the time (5-7 days). 

18. I felt sad. 

0 Rarely or none of the time (less than 1 day). 

1 Some or a little of the time (1-2 days). 

2 Occasionally or a moderate amount of the time (3-4 days). 

3 Most or all of the time (3-7 days). 

19. I felt that people disliked me. 

0 Rarely or none of the time (less than 1 day). 

1 Some or a little of the time (1-2 days). 

2 Occasionally or a moderate amount of the time (3-4 days). 

3 Most or all of the time (3-7 days). 

20. I could not get “going.” 

0 Rarely or none of the time (less than 1 day). 

1 Some or a little of the time (1-2 days). 

2 Occasionally or a moderate amount of the time (3-4 days). 

3 Most or all of the time (3-7 days). 

This test is easy to score. Add up the numbers you circled for the ques¬ 
tions. If you couldn’t decide and circled two numbers for the same question, 
count only the higher of the two. Your score will be between 0 and 60. 

Before interpreting your score, you should know that getting a high 
score is not equivalent to a diagnosis of depression. A diagnosis depends 
on other factors, such as how long your symptoms have lasted, and it can 

Ultimate Pessimism 


be made only after a thorough interview with a qualified psychologist or 
psychiatrist. Rather, this test gives an accurate indication of your level of 
depressive symptoms right now. 

If you scored from 0 to 9, you are in the nondepressed range, below the 
mean of American adults. A score of 10 to 15 puts you in the mildly 
depressed range; and 16 to 24 in the moderately depressed range. If you 
scored over 24, you may be severely depressed. 

If you scored in the severely depressed range or, whatever the range you 
scored in, and in addition you believe that you would kill yourself if you 
had a chance, / urge you to see a mental-health professional right away. If 
you scored in the moderately depressed range and in addition you would 
like to kill yourself, you should see a professional right away. If you scored 
in the moderate range, take the test again in two weeks. If you still score 
in that range, make an appointment with a mental-health professional. 

As you took the test you probably realized you or someone you love 
suffers recurrently from this all-too-common malady. It is by no means 
surprising that almost everyone, even if he is not depressed, knows some¬ 
one who is, for the United States is experiencing an unparalleled epidemic 
of depression. Dr. Gerald Klerman, when he was the director of the U.S. 
government’s Alcohol, Drug Abuse and Mental Health Agency, coined 
the apt term “The Age of Melancholy” to describe our era. 

In the late 1970s, Klerman sponsored two major studies of the rate of 
mental illness in America, and the findings were startling. The first, called 
the ECA (epidemiological catchment area) Study, was designed to find 
out how much mental illness, of every kind, there is in the United States. 
Researchers visited and interviewed 9,500 people who were randomly 
picked to be a cross section of adult Americans. They were all given the 
same diagnostic interview that a troubled patient who walks into a knowl¬ 
edgeable psychologist’s or psychiatrist’s office would get. 

Because such an unusually large number or adults of different ages were 
interviewed, and asked if and when they had experienced major symptoms, 
the study gave an unprecedented picture of mental illness over many years 
and made it possible to trace the changes that had taken place over the 
course of the twentieth century. One of the most striking changes was in 
the so-called lifetime prevalence of depression—that is, in the percentage 
of the population that has been depressed at least once in their lifetime. 
(Obviously, the older you are the more chance you have had to get any 
given disorder. The lifetime prevalence of broken legs, for instance, goes 
up with age, since the older you are, the more opportunities you have had 
to break a leg.) 

What everyone who was interested in depression expected was that the 



earlier in the century a person was born, the higher would be the person’s 
lifetime prevalence of depression—that is, the more episodes of depression 
he would have had. If you’d been born in 1920, you’d have had more 
chances to suffer depression than if you’d been born in i960. Before they 
saw the findings, medical statisticians would have stated that if you were 
twenty-five years old at the time you were interviewed for the study—if, 
that is, you were born around 1955—there was about a 6 percent chance 
you’d had at least one instance of severe depression, and if you were 
between twenty-five and forty-four years old, your risk of acute depression 
would have climbed—say, to about 9 percent—as any sensible cumulative 
statistic should. 

When the statisticians looked at the findings, they saw something very 
odd. The people born around 1925—who, since they were older, had had 
more chance to get the disorder—hadn’t suffered much depression at all. 
Not 9 percent but only 4 percent of them had had an episode. And when 
the statisticians looked at the findings for people bom even earlier—before 
World War I—they found something even more astounding. Again, the 
lifetime prevalence had not climbed, as one would have thought; it nose¬ 
dived to a mere 1 percent. 

These findings were probably not artifacts of forgetting or reporting 
biases. So this suggests that people born in the middle third of the century 
are ten times likelier to suffer depression than people born in the first third. 

One study, however—even one done as well as the ECA Study—does 
not entitle scientists to shout “Epidemic.” Fortunately, the National In¬ 
stitute of Mental Health had done another study, called the Relatives 
Study, at the same time. It was similar to the ECA Study in design, and 
it too covered a considerable number of people. This time the people 
weren’t randomly selected; they were chosen because they had close rel¬ 
atives who had been hospitalized for severe depression. The questioners 
started with 523 people who had already been severely depressed. Almost 
all the readily available first-degree relatives of these people—a total of 
2,289 fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, sons, and daughters—received an 
identical diagnostic interview. The aim was to find out if these relatives 
had ever been seriously depressed too, to see if relatives of seriously de¬ 
pressed people are at greater risk of depression than the population at 
large. Knowing this would help untangle the genetic from the environ¬ 
mental contribution to depression. 

Again, as in the ECA Study, the findings turned expectations upside 
down. They showed a greater than tenfold increase in depression over the 
course of the century. 

Consider just the women. Those studied who had been born during the 

Ultimate Pessimism 


Korean War period (which means they were about thirty years old at 
the time of the ECA Study) were ten times likelier to have had an episode 
of depression than women born around World War I were, even though 
the older women (in their seventies at the time of the study) had had much 
more opportunity to become depressed. 

Back when the women of the World War I generation were thirty (the 
age the Korean War women now were), only 3 percent of them had had 
a severe depression. Contrast this with the fate of the women of the Korean 
War period: By the time they were thirty, 60 percent of them had been 
severely depressed—a twentyfold difference. 

The statistics on the males in the study showed the same surprising 
reversal. Though the men suffered only about half as much depression as 
the women (a crucial fact I’ll discuss in the next chapter), the percentage 
of men who had been depressed displayed the same strong increase over 
the course of the century. 

Not only is severe depression much more common now; it also attacks 
its victims much younger. If you were born in the 1930s and later had a 
depressed relative, your own first depression, if you had one, would likely 
strike between the ages of thirty and thirty-five. If you were born in 1956, 
your first depression would probably strike when you were between twenty 
and twenty-five—ten years sooner. Since severe depression recurs in about 
half of those who have had it once, the extra ten years of vulnerability to 
depression add up to an ocean of tears. 

And there may be other oceans, for these studies are concerned only 
with severe depression. Milder depression, which so many of us have 
experienced, may show just the same trend: There may be a great deal 
more of it than there used to be. Americans, on average, may be more 
depressed, and at a younger age, than they have ever been: unprecedented 
psychological misery in a nation with unprecedented prosperity and ma¬ 
terial well-being. 

In any case, there is more than enough to warrant shouting “Epidemic.” 

I have spent the last twenty years trying to learn what causes depression. 
Here is what I think. 

Bipolar depression (manic-depression) is an illness of the body, biological 
in origin and containable by drugs. 

Some unipolar depressions, too, are partly biological, particularly the 
fiercest ones. Some unipolar depression is inherited. If one of two identical 
twins is depressed, the other is somewhat more likely to be depressed than 
if they’d been fraternal twins. This kind of unipolar depression can often 



be contained with drugs, although not nearly as successfully as bipolar 
depression can be, and its symptoms can often be relieved by electrocon¬ 
vulsive therapy. 

But inherited unipolar depressions are in the minority. This raises the 
question of where the great number of depressions making up the epidemic 
in this country come from. I ask myself if human beings have undergone 
physical changes over the century that have made them more vulnerable 
to depression. Probably not. It is very doubtful that our brain chemistry 
or our genes have changed radically over the last two generations. So a 
tenfold increase in depression is not likely to be explained on biological 

I suspect that the epidemic depression so familiar to all of us is best 
viewed as psychological. My guess is that most depression starts with prob¬ 
lems in living and with specific ways of thinking about these problems. 
Those were my suppositions when I began my research on depression 
twenty years ago, but I wondered how we could prove that the cause of 
most depression is psychological. 

By what psychological process do people become depressed? An anal¬ 
ogy: How do birds fly? From the time of the ancient Greeks through the 
end of the nineteenth century, there had been controversies about that 
astounding and wonderful process. It was easy enough to watch birds fly 
and then concoct a theory, yet there was simply no way to know which 
theory was right. The question was settled once and for all in 1903, and 
the solution came from unexpected quarters. 

Wilbur and Orville Wright built an airplane and it flew. So physicists 
resorted to modeling, a time-honored means of settling scientific disputes. 
Modeling involves creating a “logical model” having the properties of the 
phenomenon that is mysterious—flying, for the Wrights, and depression, 
for us. If the logical model has all the properties of the real thing, the 
process by which the model works will tell you how the real thing works. 

The Wrights’ airplane—the logical model of bird flight—took off and, 
mirabile dictu , flew. So physicists concluded birds must fly by the same 

My challenge was to construct a logical model displaying all the prop¬ 
erties of depression. This task had two parts: first, to build the model and, 
second, to show that it fit depression. I could see some similarities right 
off, but proving that they were the same thing, and that learned helplessness 
was a laboratory model of the real-world phenomenon called depression, 
was another matter. 

Across the next twenty years, well over three hundred studies, done in 
many universities around the world, built the learned-helplessness model. 
The very first studies were done with dogs; rats soon replaced the dogs, 

Ultimate Pessimism 


and finally people replaced the rats. All the studies had the same form: 
They were experiments with three groups of subjects. One group was 
allowed to bring some event or item—noise, shock, money, food—under 
its voluntary control. For example, a rat controlled shock by pressing a 
bar; each time it pressed the bar, the shock stopped. A second group— 
the helpless group—was “yoked” to the first and got exactly the same 
shock, but nothing it did mattered. Shock stopped for a rat in this group 
whenever the first rat pressed the bar. A third group was left entirely alone. 

The results were consistent. The helpless group gave up. They became 
so passive that even in new situations, they didn’t try. Rats just sat there, 
not even trying to escape. People gazed at easy anagrams and made no 
attempt to solve them. (A sizable number of other symptoms also ensued, 
and I’ll discuss them later.) The group able to control events remained 
active and chipper, as did the group that was left alone. The rats ran briskly 
out of shock, and the people unscrambled the anagrams in a few seconds. 

These simple results directly identified the source of learned helplessness. 
It was caused by experience in which subjects learned that nothing they 
did mattered and that their responses didn’t work to bring them what they 
wanted. This experience taught them to expect that, in the future and in 
new situations, their actions would once again be futile. 

The symptoms of learned helplessness could be produced in several ways. 
Defeat and failure generated the same symptoms as uncontrollable events 
did. Being defeated in a fight by another rat produced symptoms identical 
to those caused by inescapable shock. Being told your job was to control 
noise, and then failing to do so, produced the same symptoms as unsolvable 
problems or inescapable noise did. So learned helplessness seemed to be 
at the core of defeat and failure. 

Learned helplessness could be cured by showing the subject his own 
actions would now work. It could also be cured by teaching the subject to 
think differently about what caused him to fail. It could be prevented if, 
before the experience with helplessness occurred, the subject learned that 
his actions made a difference. The earlier in life such mastery was learned, 
the more effective the immunization against helplessness. 

Thus was the learned-helplessness theory developed, tested, and per¬ 
fected. But did it serve as a model for depression? Did the laboratory 
model fit the real-world phenomenon? The stakes in achieving a fit were 
large, for when a model exists, a disorder can be deliberately created in 
the laboratory, which means there is a good chance its hidden mechanisms 
can be identified and treatments devised. If it turned out we had discovered 
a laboratory model for one of mankind’s oldest tormentors, depression, 
that would be scientific progress of a high order. 

There was little to do to show that the principles of the Wright brothers’ 



airplane flight matched those of bird flight. Their “symptoms” were pat¬ 
ently the same: Both took off, flew, and landed. In the case of learned 
helplessness there was much more to do to show that the experiment 
reflected, point for point, all the symptoms of depression. A convincing 
fit is the crucial step for all laboratory models of mental illness. We needed 
to know whether the symptoms of learned helplessness produced in all 
those laboratories were the same as the symptoms depressed people had. 
The closer the parallel, the better the model. 

Let’s start with the toughest case: full-blown unipolar depression, like 
that of Sophie, the young patient I spoke of earlier in this chapter. 

If you walk into a psychiatrist’s or psychologist’s office for help, he will 
soon attempt a diagnosis, and to help him do that he’ll pull out a copy of 
something called DSM-III-R (which stands for Diagnostic and Statistical 
Manual of the American Psychiatric Association, third edition, revised). It 
is the official bible of the profession, a codification of what we know about 
how to diagnose mental illness. In your first interview the therapist will 
try to see if your symptoms let him place you in any of the categories of 
mental disorder. 

Making a diagnosis by DSM-III-R is a little like ordering dinner from a 
Chinese menu. To be diagnosed as suffering a “major depressive episode” 
you must have five of the following nine symptoms: 

1. Depressed mood 

2. Loss of interest in usual activities 

3. Loss of appetite 

4. Insomnia 

5. Psychomotor retardation (slow thought or movement) 

6. Loss of energy 

7. Feelings of worthlessness and guilt 

8. Diminished ability to think and poor concentration 

9. Suicidal thought or action 

Sophie was a good example of someone suffering a major depressive 
episode. She had six of the nine symptoms, lacking only suicidal thoughts, 
psychomotor retardation, and insomnia. 

When we took the list of symptoms from DSM-III-R and applied them 
to the people and animals that had taken part in the learned-helplessness 
experiments, we found that the groups allowed to control events had none 
of the nine critical symptoms, but the groups not permitted to control these 
very same events showed no less than eight of the nine—two more than 
the seriously depressed Sophie had had. 

Ultimate Pessimism 


1. People given inescapable noise or unsolvable problems reported 
that a depressed mood descended on them. 

2. Animals that suffered inescapable shock lost interest in their usual 
activities. They no longer competed with each other, fought back 
when attacked, or cared for their young. 

3. Animals that suffered inescapable shock lost their appetites. They 
ate less, drank less water (and more alcohol when offered it), and 
lost weight. They lost interest in copulation. 

4. Helpless animals had insomnia , particularly the early-morning 
awakening that depressed people have. 

5. and 6. Helpless people and animals showed psychomotor retarda¬ 
tion and lost energy. They didn’t try to escape shock, get food, or 
solve problems. They didn’t fight back when attacked or insulted. 
They readily gave up on new tasks. They wouldn’t explore new 

7. Helpless people blamed their failure to solve problems on their 
lack of ability and worthlessness. The more depressed they got, the 
worse was this aspect of their pessimistic explanatory style. 

8. Helpless people and animals didn't think very well and were inat¬ 
tentive. They had extraordinary difficulty learning anything new and 
had trouble paying attention to the crucial cues that signal rewards 
or safety. 

The only symptom we didn’t see was suicidal thought and action, and this 
was probably only because the laboratory failures were so minor: e.g., 
failure to turn off noise or solve anagrams. 

So the fit between the model and the real-life phenomenon was exceed¬ 
ingly close. Inescapable noise, unsolvable problems, and inescapable shock 
produced eight of the nine symptoms which contribute to the diagnosis of 
major depression. 

The closeness of this fit inspired researchers to test the theory still another 
way. A number of drugs can break up depression in people; the researchers 
gave all of them to the helpless animals. Again the results were dramatic: 
Each of the antidepressant drugs (and electroconvulsive therapy as well) 
cured learned helplessness in animals. They probably did so by raising the 
amount of crucial neurotransmitters available in the brain. The researchers 
also found that drugs that do not break up depression in people, like 
caffeine, Valium, and amphetamines, do not break up learned helplessness 

The fit, then, seemed almost perfect. In its symptoms, learned help¬ 
lessness produced in the laboratory seemed almost identical to depression. 



When we now looked at the upsurge of depression, we could view it as 
an epidemic of learned helplessness. We knew the cause of learned help¬ 
lessness, and now we could see it as the cause of depression : the belief that 
your actions will be futile. This belief was engendered by defeat and failure 
as well as by uncontrollable situations. Depression could be caused by 
defeat, failure, and loss and the consequent belief that any actions taken 
will be futile. 

I think this belief is at the heart of our national epidemic of depression. 
The modern self must be more susceptible to learned helplessness, to an 
ever-growing conviction that nothing one does matters. I think I know 
why, and I’ll discuss it in the final chapter. 

This all sounds pretty bleak. Yet there is also a hopeful side, and this 
is where explanatory style becomes important. 


How You Think, How You Feel 

If Sophie had suffered her depression twenty years ago, she would have 
been out of luck. She would have had to wait until the depression ran its 
course—months, even a year or more. But because she became depressed 
within the last decade, she stood a much better chance, for in the last ten 
years a treatment has been developed that works quickly and well. Its 
discoverers were a psychologist, Albert Ellis, and a psychiatrist, Aaron T. 
Beck. When the history of modern psychotherapy is written, I believe their 
names will appear on the short list with Freud and Jung. Together they 
took the mystery out of depression. They showed us it was much simpler 
and more curable than it was thought to be. 

Before Ellis and Beck spun their theories, it was dogma that all depres¬ 
sion was manic-depressive illness. There were two opposing theories of 
manic-depression illness: The biomedical school held that it was a disease 
of the body; the alternative was Freud’s notion that depression was anger 
turned upon the self. Dutifully incorporating this insidious bit of nonsense 
into their treatment of patients, the Freudians urged depressives to let all 
their emotions hang out—with the common result of increased depression 
and even suicide. 

Ellis was a very different apostle of letting it all hang out. After getting 
his Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1947, Ellis undertook a private 
practice in psychotherapy, specializing in marriage and family therapy. 
Perhaps stirred by his patients’ disclosures, he soon launched what became 
a lifelong campaign against sexual repression. He began writing book after 
book with ti tles like If This Be Sexual Heresy , The Case for Sexual Liberty , 
and The Civilized Couple's Guide to Extramarital Adventure. Quite nat- 



urally Ellis became a charter member of, and guru to, the Kerouac gen¬ 
eration, providing its rationale. I first came across his work in the early 
1960s when, as a Princeton sophomore, I helped organize a student pro¬ 
gram on sexuality. Ellis, invited to speak, proposed some such title as 
“Masturbate Now” for his presentation. The president of Princeton, usually 
a man of unflappable fairness, had him disinvited. 

Many colleagues viewed Ellis as an embarrassment, but others recog¬ 
nized that he was endowed with an extraordinary clinical sense. When his 
patients were talking, he was listening acutely and thinking hard and icon- 
oclastically. By the 1970s he had taken his charisma and his directness into 
the field of depression, an area filled with nearly as much prejudice and 
misconception as sexuality was. Depression was never the same again. 

Ellis was as outrageous in his new field as he’d been in the old. Gaunt 
and angular, always in motion, he sounded like a (very effective) vacuum- 
cleaner salesman. With patients, he pushed and pushed until he had per¬ 
suaded them to give up the irrational beliefs that sustained their depression. 
“What do you mean you can’t live without love?” he would cry. “Utter 
nonsense. Love comes rarely in life, and if you waste your life mooning 
over its all too ordinary absence, you are bringing on your own depression. 
You are living under a tyranny of should's. Stop 4 should-ing’ on yourself!” 

Ellis believed that what others thought of as deep neurotic conflict was 
simply bad thinking—“stupid behavior on the part of nonstupid people,” 
he called it—and in a loud, propagandistic way (he called himself a coun¬ 
terpropagandist) he would demand that his patients stop thinking wrong 
and start thinking right. Surprisingly, most of his patients got better. Ellis 
successfully challenged the hallowed belief that mental illness is an enor¬ 
mously intricate, even mysterious phenomenon, curable only when deep 
unconscious conflicts are brought to light or a medical illness is rooted out. 
In the complexified world of psychology, this stripped-down approach came 
off as revolutionary. 

Meanwhile, Beck, a Freudian psychiatrist with immense clinical gifts, 
was also having trouble with the orthodox approach. Beck and Ellis 
couldn’t have contrasted more sharply. Ellis’s manner was Trotskyite, 
Beck’s was Socratic. A friendly, folksy man with a cherubic face and the 
look of a New England country doctor, given to wearing red bow ties, 
Beck conveyed gentleness and bedrock common sense. Haranguing pa¬ 
tients was not his style. He would listen carefully, softly question, mildly 

Like Ellis, Beck found himself intensely frustrated in the 1960s because 
of the stranglehold the Freudian and biomedical views had on the treatment 
of depression. After his medical studies at Yale, he spent years as a con- 

How You Think , How You Feel 


ventional analyst, waiting for the lonely figure on the couch to come up 
with some insight about his depression: how he had been turning his anger 
on himself instead of expressing it, and how depression had resulted. Beck’s 
wait was rarely rewarded. He had then tried treating groups of depressives, 
encouraging them to give vent to their anger and their sadness rather than 
holding them in. This was worse than unrewarding. Depressives would 
unravel before his eyes, and he could not easily knit them up again. 

In 1966, when I met Tim Beck (his middle name is Temkin and his 
friends call him Tim), he was writing his first book about depression. His 
common sense had asserted itself. He had decided he would merely de¬ 
scribe what a depressed person consciously thinks and leave to others the 
deep theorizing about where these thoughts come from. Depressives think 
awful things about themselves and their future. Maybe that’s all there is 
to depression, Tim reasoned. Maybe what looks like a symptom of depres¬ 
sion—negative thinking —is the disease. Depression, he argued coura¬ 
geously, is neither bad brain chemistry nor anger turned inward. It is a 
disorder of conscious thought. 

With this battle cry, Tim lit into the Freudians. “The troubled person,” 
he wrote, “is led to believe that he can’t help himself and must seek out 
a professional healer when confronted with distress related to everyday 
problems of living. His confidence in using the ‘obvious’ techniques he has 
customarily used in solving his problems is eroded because he accepts the 
view that emotional disturbances arise from forces beyond his grasp. He 
can’t hope to understand himself through his own efforts, because his own 
notions are dismissed as shallow and insubstantial. By debasing the value 
of common sense, this subtle indoctrination inhibits him from using his 
own judgment in analyzing and solving his problems.” 

Tim liked to quote a remark by the great mathematician and philosopher 
Alfred North Whitehead: “Science is rooted in .. . common sense thought. 
That is the datum from which it starts, and to which it must recur. . . . 
You may polish up common sense, you may contradict it in detail, you 
may surprise it. But ultimately your whole task is to satisfy it.” 

A progenitor of this revolution in psychology, also today in his seventies, 
was Joseph Wolpe. A psychiatrist in South Africa and a born dissenter 
(his own brother, a leading South African Communist, had been persecuted 
and jailed), Wolpe had chosen to confront the psychoanalytic establish¬ 
ment. In South Africa, that was almost like opposing apartheid, such was 
psychoanalysis’s grip on the profession. In the 1950s Wolpe astounded the 
therapeutic world, and infuriated his colleagues, by finding a simple cure 
for phobias. The psychoanalytic establishment held that a phobia—an ir¬ 
rational and intense fear of certain objects, such as cats—was just a surface 



manifestation of a deeper, underlying disorder. The phobia’s source, it 
was said, was the buried fear that your father would castrate you in re¬ 
taliation for your lust for your mother. (No alternative mechanism is sug¬ 
gested for women. Remarkably, Freudians never paid much attention to 
the fact that the vast majority of phobics are women, and therefore lack 
the genital configuration required by their theory.) The biomedical theo¬ 
rists, on the other hand, claimed that there must be some, as yet undis¬ 
covered, disordered brain chemistry that was the underlying problem. 
(Even now, forty years later, this malfunction of brain chemistry has not 
been found.) Both groups insisted that to treat only the patient’s fear of 
cats would do no more good than it would to put rouge over measles. 

Wolpe, however, reasoned that irrational fear of something isn’t just a 
symptom of a phobia; it’s the whole phobia. If the fear could be removed 
(and it could, through various Pavlovian extinction procedures involving 
punishment and reward), that would extinguish the phobia. If you could 
get rid of your fear of cats, the problem would be solved. The phobia 
wouldn’t, as the psychoanalytic and biomedical theorists claimed, reappear 
in some other form. Wolpe and his followers, who called themselves be¬ 
havior therapists, routinely cured fears in a month or two, and the phobias 
didn’t reappear in any other form. 

For this impertinence—for implying there was nothing particularly com¬ 
plex about psychiatric disorders—Wolpe was made exceedingly uncom¬ 
fortable in South Africa. He exiled himself, going to Maudsley Hospital 
in London, then the University of Virginia, and finally Temple University 
in Philadelphia, where he continued to apply behavior therapy to mental 
illness. Feisty and opinionated, he regularly got into huge fights with every¬ 
one. When followers deviated from his ideas even in small ways, he wrote 
them off. If this trait was reminiscent of the psychoanalytic orthodoxy by 
which he himself had been persecuted, the other side of the trait was 

By the late 1960s Philadelphia was becoming the Athens of the new 
psychology. Joseph Wolpe was fulminating up at Temple, and Tim Beck 
was now at the University of Pennsylvania, gathering an increasing number 
of adherents. He quietly drew the same conclusion about depression that 
Wolpe had drawn about phobia. Depression is nothing more than its symp¬ 
toms. It is caused by conscious negative thoughts. There is no deep un¬ 
derlying disorder to be rooted out: not unresolved childhood conflicts, not 
our unconscious anger, and not even our brain chemistry. Emotion comes 
directly from what we think: Think “I am in danger” and you feel anxiety. 
Think ‘‘I am being trespassed against” and you feel anger. Think “Loss” 
and you feel sadness. 

How You Think , How You Feel 


I was an early adherent, believing that the same process—conscious 
thought gone awry—might be at work in both learned helplessness and 
depression. I had gone to Cornell University to teach in 1967, right after 
taking my Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1969 Tim asked me 
to come back to the University of Pennsylvania and spend a year or two 
with him to learn his new approach to depression. I returned gladly and 
found myself in the middle of a group excitedly designing a new kind of 
therapy for depression. 

Our reasoning was straightforward. Depression results from lifelong hab¬ 
its of conscious thought. If we change these habits of thought, we will cure 
depression. Let's make a direct assault on conscious thought, we said, 
using everything we know to change the way our patients think about bad 
events. Out of this came the new approach, which Beck called cognitive 
therapy. It tries to change the way the depressed patient thinks about 
failure, defeat, loss, and helplessness. The National Institute of Mental 
Health has spent millions of dollars testing whether the therapy works on 
depression. It does. 

How you think about your problems, including depression itself, will 
either relieve depression or aggravate it. A failure or a defeat can teach 
you that you are now helpless, but learned helplessness will produce only 
momentary symptoms of depression—unless you have a pessimistic ex¬ 
planatory style. If you do, then failure and defeat can throw you into a 
full-blown depression. On the other hand, if your explanatory style is 
optimistic, your depression will be halted. 

Women are twice as likely to suffer depression as men are, because on 
the average they think about problems in ways that amplify depression. 
Men tend to act rather than reflect, but women tend to contemplate their 
depression, mulling it over and over, trying to analyze it and determine 
its source. Psychologists call this process of obsessive analysis rumination , 
a word whose first meaning is “chewing the cud." Ruminant animals, 
such as cattle, sheep, and goats, chew a cud composed of regurgitated, 
partially digested food—not a very appealing image of what people who 
ruminate do with their thoughts, but an exceedingly apt one. Rumina¬ 
tion combined with pessimistic explanatory style is the recipe for severe 

This ends the bad news. The good news is that both pessimistic explan¬ 
atory style and rumination can be changed, and changed permanently. 
Cognitive therapy can create optimistic explanatory style and curtail ru¬ 
mination. It prevents new depressions by teaching the skills needed to 



bounce back from defeat. You will see how it works on others, and then 
you will learn how to use its techniques on yourself. 

Learned Helplessness and 
Explanatory Style 

We all become momentarily helpless when we fail. The psychological 
wind is knocked out of us. We feel sad, the future looks dismal, and putting 
out any effort seems overwhelmingly difficult. Some people recover almost 
at once; all the symptoms of learned helplessness dissipate within hours. 
Others stay helpless for weeks or, if the failure is important enough, for 
months or longer. 

This is the critical difference between brief demoralization and an episode 
of depression. You will recall that eight of the nine symptoms of depression 
in the DSM-III-R “Chinese menu” (described in chapter four) are pro¬ 
duced by learned helplessness. You must have five of the nine to be di¬ 
agnosed as suffering a major depressive episode. However, one more factor 
is needed: The symptoms cannot be momentary; they have to last at least 
two weeks. 

The difference between people whose learned helplessness disappears 
swiftly and people who suffer their symptoms for two weeks or more is 
usually simple : Members of the latter group have a pessimistic explanatory 
style, and a pessimistic explanatory style changes learned helplessness from 
brief and local to long-lasting and general. Learned helplessness becomes 
full-blown depression when the person who fails is a pessimist. In optimists, 
a failure produces only brief demoralization. 

The key to this process is hope or hopelessness. Pessimistic explanatory 
style, you will recall, consists of certain kinds of explanations for bad events: 
personal (“It’s my fault”), permanent (“It’s always going to be like this”), 
and pervasive (“It’s going to undermine every aspect of my life”). If you 
explain a failure permanently and pervasively, you project your present 
failure into the future and into all new situations. For example, if rejected 
by someone you love, you may tell yourself, “Women [men] hate me” (a 
pervasive explanation) and “I’m never going to find anybody” (a perma¬ 
nent explanation). Both of these factors, permanence and pervasiveness, 
create your expectation that you will be rejected again and again—that it 
is not just this lover who will reject you but all lovers. Explaining romantic 
setbacks to yourself this way will undercut all your future quests for love. 

How You Think, How You Feel 


If, in addition, you believe the cause is personal (“I’m unlovable”), your 
self-esteem will suffer as well. 

Put all this together and you can see there is one particularly self- 
defeating way to think: making personal, permanent, and pervasive expla¬ 
nations for bad events. People who have this most pessimistic of all styles 
are likely, once they fail, to have the symptoms of learned helplessness 
for a long time and across many endeavors, and to lose self-esteem. Such 
protracted learned helplessness amounts to depression. This is the central 
prediction from my theory: People who have a pessimistic explanatory 
style and suffer bad events will probably become depressed, whereas people 
who have an optimistic explanatory style and suffer bad events will tend 
to resist depression. 

If this is so, then pessimism is a risk factor for depression in just the 
same sense as smoking is a risk factor for lung cancer or being a hostile, 
hard-driving man is a risk factor for heart attack. 

Does Pessimism Cause Depression? 

I have spent much of the last ten years testing this prediction. The first 
thing the University of Pennsylvania group did was the simplest. We gave 
the explanatory-style questionnaire to depressed people, thousands of 
them, people with all kinds and degrees of depression. We consistently 
found that when people are depressed they are also pessimistic. The finding 
was so consistent and was repeated so often that, according to one estimate, 
it would take over ten thousand negative studies to cast doubt on it. 

This does not show that pessimism causes depression, only that depressed 
people happen to be pessimistic at the same time they are depressed. You’d 
get this same coincidence of pessimism and depression if (to reverse things) 
it were depression that caused pessimism, or if something else (like brain 
chemistry) caused both conditions. Finally, part of the way we diagnose 
depression is to listen to what pessimistic people say. If a patient tells us 
he is worthless, this pessimistic explanation is part of the reason we diagnose 
him as depressed. So, the association between pessimistic explanatory style 
and depression could simply be circular. 

To show that pessimism causes depression, we needed to take a group 
of people who were not depressed and show that, after some catastrophe, 
the pessimistic ones became depressed more easily than the optimistic ones. 
The ideal experiment would have been something like this: to test everyone 
in a small town on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi for depression and ex- 



planatory style and then wait for a hurricane to hit. After the hurricane 
passed, we’d go see who lay there passively in the mud and who got up 
and rebuilt the town. There were both ethical and funding problems in¬ 
volved in conducting this “experiment of nature.” So we had to find other 
ways of testing the causal chain. 

One of my most brilliant undergraduates, Amy Semmel, then a soph¬ 
omore, solved the dilemma by pointing out natural disasters that hit much 
closer to home—hit my own classes, in fact, twice a semester. Exams. 
When my classes began in September, we tested all the students both for 
depression and for their explanatory style. In October, as the midterm 
approached, we asked them all what would count as a “failure” for them. 
On average, they said getting a B + would constitute failure. (You can see 
what a bunch of high achievers they were.) This was fine for the experiment 
since the average grade on my exams is C, which meant most of my students 
would be subjects. One week later, they took the midterm, and the next 
week they got their midterm grades back, along with a copy of the Beck 
Depression Inventory. 

Thirty percent of the people who (by their own definition of failure) 
failed the midterm got very depressed. And 30 percent of the people who 
were pessimists in September did, too. But 70 percent of the people who 
both were pessimists in September and failed the exam got depressed. So 
a recipe for severe depression is preexisting pessimism encountering failure. 
In fact, those of this group who made the most permanent and pervasive 
explanations for why they failed were the people who were still depressed 
when we tested them again in December. 

A much grimmer setting for an “experiment of nature” took place in 
prison. We measured the depression level and explanatory style of male 
prisoners before and after incarceration. Because suicide in prison is such 
a prevalent problem, we wanted to try to predict who was at most risk for 
becoming depressed. To our surprise, no one was seriously depressed upon 
entering prison. To our dismay, almost everyone was depressed on leaving. 
Some might say this means the prisons are doing their job, but it seems 
to me something deeply demoralizing is happening during imprisonment. 
At any rate, we once again correctly predicted who became most depressed 
of all: those who entered as pessimists. This means pessimism is fertile soil 
in which depression grows, particularly when the environment is hostile. 

These various findings all pointed to pessimism as a cause of depression. 
We knew we could take a group of normal people and predict, far in 
advance, who among them were most likely to succumb to depression when 
bad events struck. 

Another way of finding out if pessimism causes depression was to look 

How You Think , How You Feel 


at a group of people across time, in the course of their natural lives. This 
is called conducting a longitudinal study. We followed a group of 400 third- 
graders right on through the sixth grade (we’re still following them), mea¬ 
suring their explanatory style, their depression, their school achievement, 
and their popularity twice a year. We found that the children who started 
out as pessimists were the ones most likely, over the four years, to get 
depressed and stay depressed. Those children who started out as optimists 
stayed nondepressed or, if they did get depressed, they recovered rapidly. 
When major bad events occurred, like parents separating or getting di¬ 
vorced, the pessimists went under most readily. We also studied young 
adults and found the same pattern. 

Do these studies really prove that pessimism causes depression, or only 
that pessimism precedes depression and predicts it? Here’s a particularly 
devilish argument. Let’s assume people have a great deal of insight into 
how they react to bad events. Some people have repeatedly seen how 
devastated they become when bad things happen. This knowledge makes 
them pessimists. Others, those who will become optimists, have seen how 
promptly they bounce back. These two groups become pessimists or op¬ 
timists because they have observed their own reaction to bad events. On 
this account, pessimism is no more a cause of depression than a speed¬ 
ometer’s reading 60 miles an hour causes the car to speed along: The 
speedometer and the pessimism merely reflect more basic underlying states. 

I know of only one way to dispatch this argument: Study the way therapy 

Explanatoiy Style and Cognitive Therapy 

Tanya came into therapy with a marriage going downhill day by day, 
three children she saw as wild and uncontrollable, and a very severe depres¬ 
sion. She agreed to participate in a study of different therapies for depres¬ 
sion and was assigned to receive both cognitive therapy and antidepressant 
drugs. She allowed the investigators to tape-record her therapy sessions. 
In these quotes, the italics emphasize the sorts of explanations she gave 
for her problems. I will attach numbers to each quote. These numbers are 
her pessimism scores (related to the test in chapter three). They range 
from 3 (completely temporary, specific, and external) to 21 (completely 
permanent, pervasive, and personalized). Each individual dimension is 
coded on a 1 to 7 scale, so the three dimensions added together range 



from 3 to 31. Numbers in the 3 to 8 range are very optimistic. Numbers 
above 13 are very pessimistic.* 

Tanya felt disgusted with herself “ because I always yell at my 
kids and never apologize ” (permanent, rather pervasive, and per¬ 
sonal: 17). 

She had no hobbies “ because I’m no good at anything ” (permanent, 
pervasive, and personal: 21). 

She failed to take her antidepressant medicine “because I can’t 
handle it, Ym not strong enough ” (permanent, pervasive, and per¬ 
sonal: 15). 

Tanya’s explanations were uniformly pessimistic. Whatever it was, if it was 
bad, it was going to last forever, it was going to destroy everything, and 
it was her fault. 

Like everyone else in her group, she received twelve weeks of treatment. 
She did beautifully. Her depression began to lift markedly within a month, 
and by the end of treatment she was free of depression. Her life wasn’t 
outwardly much better. Her marriage continued to fall apart by inches. 
Her children still didn’t behave themselves at school or at home. But she 
looked at the causes of her problems in a much more optimistic way. Here’s 
the way she now talked: 

“I had to go to church alone because my husband was being mean 
and wouldn't go” (temporary, specific, and external: 8). 

“I run around looking like rags because the kids have to get their 
school clothes ” (quite temporary, specific, and external: 8). 

“He took all my money out of the savings account and spent it on 
himself. If I’d had a gun, I would have shot him” (temporary, specific, 
and external: 9). 

She had been having trouble driving “ because my glasses aren't dark 
enough ” (temporary, specific, and external: 6). 

When bad events occurred, as they did almost daily, Tanya no longer saw 
them as unchangeable, pervasive, and her fault. She now began to take 
action to change things. 

What caused Tanya’s remarkable change from pessimistic to optimistic 

•The method of coding the pessimism of people who cannot or did not take explanatory- 
style questionnaires is called content analysis of verbatim explanations, or CAVE. It is 
described on page 132. 

How You Think , How You Feel 


explanatory style? Was it the drugs or was it the cognitive therapy? Was 
the change just a sign she had gotten less depressed, or was it the cause 
of her getting less depressed? Because Tanya was one of many patients 
assigned to different treatments, these questions could be answered. 

First, both treatments worked very well. Antidepressant drugs alone and 
cognitive therapy alone broke up depression reliably. The combination 
worked even better than either alone, but only slightly better. 

Second, the active ingredient in cognitive therapy was a change in ex¬ 
planatory style from pessimistic to optimistic. The more cognitive therapy 
done and the more expertly it was delivered, the more thorough the change 
to optimism. In turn, the greater the change toward optimism, the greater 
the relief from depression. Drugs, on the other hand, even though they 
relieved the depression fairly effectively, did not make patients more op¬ 
timistic. It was reasonable to conclude that although drugs and cognitive 
therapy both relieve depression, they probably work in quite different ways. 
Drugs seem to be activators; they push the patient up and out, but they 
do not make the world look any brighter. Cognitive therapy changes the 
way you look at things, and this new, optimistic style gets you up and 

The third and most important set of findings was about relapse. How 
permanent was the relief of depression? Tanya’s depression did not recur, 
although those of many of the other patients in this study did. The results 
showed that the key to permanent relief of depression was a change in 
explanatory style. Many of the patients in the drug groups relapsed, but 
patients who got cognitive therapy did not relapse at nearly that rate. 
Patients whose explanatory style became optimistic were less likely to 
relapse than patients whose style remained pessimistic. 

This means cognitive therapy specifically works by making patients more 
optimistic. It prevents relapse because patients acquire a skill they can use 
again and again without relying on drugs or doctors. Drugs relieve depres¬ 
sion, but only temporarily; unlike cognitive therapy, drugs fail to change 
the underlying pessimism which is at the root of the problem. 

I concluded from these studies that among people who are not now 
depressed, pessimistic explanatory style predicts who is going to get de¬ 
pressed. It also predicts who will stay depressed, and it predicts who will 
relapse after therapy. Changing explanatory style from pessimism to op¬ 
timism relieves depression markedly. 

Remember our concern that pessimism might merely display the fact 
that you are easily depressed by bad events, but not itself be a cause of 
depression. The way to test whether pessimism is a cause is to change 
pessimism to optimism. If pessimism was only an indicator, like a speed- 



ometer, changing to optimism shouldn’t affect how you react to bad events 
any more than changing the speedometer would change the speed of the 
car. However, if pessimism is a cause of why you get depressed so easily, 
changing pessimism into optimism should relieve depression. That is, in 
fapt, what happened. This outcome sews up a causal role for pessimism in 
depression. It is surely not the only cause of depression—genes, bad events, 
hormones also put people at risk—but that it is one of the major causes 
now seems undeniable. 

Rumination and Depression 

If you walk around disposed to believe of any problem that “it’s me, 
it’s going to last forever, it’s going to undermine everything I try,” you 
are set up for depression. But just because you may be disposed to think 
this way doesn’t necessarily mean you frequently utter such thoughts to 
yourself. Some people do, some don’t. People who mull over bad events 
are called ruminators. 

A ruminator can either be an optimist or a pessimist. Ruminators who 
are pessimists are in trouble. Their belief structure is pessimistic, and they 
repeatedly tell themselves how bad things are. Other pessimists are action- 
oriented and do not ruminate: They have pessimistic explanatory style, 
but they do not talk to themselves much at all. When they do, it is usually 
about what they plan to do, not about how bad things are. 

When Tanya came into therapy, she was not only a pessimist, she was 
a ruminator as well. She brooded about her marriage, her children, and 
most destructively, her depression itself. 

“But now, I don’t want to do nothing. ...” 

“It’s just really bad for me, I’ve got the blues constantly. I’m not 
a crying person—I don’t cry unless there’s a real good reason—but, 
jeez, this time when somebody says something I don’t like, I start 
crying. ...” 

“I can’t take this. ...” 

“I’m not a very affectionate person. . . .” 

“My husband won’t leave me alone. He just bugs me. I wish he 
wouldn’t be like that.” 

Tanya had succumbed to nonstop rumination, an unbroken string of sour 
musings with no action statements at all. It wasn’t her pessimism alone 
that was fueling her depression; it was rumination too. 

How You Think , How You Feel 


Here’s how the pessimism-rumination chain leads to depression: First, 
there is some threat against which you believe you are helpless. Second, 
you look for the threat’s cause, and, if you are a pessimist, the cause you 
arrive at is permanent, pervasive, and personal. Consequently, you expect 
to be helpless in the future and in many situations, a conscious expectation 
that is the last link in the chain, the one triggering depression. 

The expectation of helplessness may arise only rarely, or it may arise all 
the time. The more you are inclined to ruminate, the more it arises. The 
more it arises, the more depressed you will be. Brooding, thinking about 
how bad things are, starts the sequence. Ruminators get this chain going 
all the time'. Any reminder of the original threat causes them to run off 
the whole pessimism-rumination chain, right through to the expectation of 
failure and into depression. 

People who do not ruminate tend to avoid depression even if they are 
pessimists. For them the sequence runs itself off infrequently. Optimists 
who ruminate also avoid depression. Changing either rumination or pes¬ 
simism helps relieve depression. Changing both helps the most. 

We find, then, that pessimistic ruminators are most at risk for depression. 
Cognitive therapy limits rumination as well as creating an optimistic ex¬ 
planatory style. Here’s what Tanya sounded like at the end of therapy: 

“I don’t want a full-time job again, I just want something part-time, 
four hours a day so I don’t have to sit in the house all day ...” 

“I will feel like I am contributing to the income so if we want to go 
somewhere, we can go” (action). 

“I kind of like to do spur-of-the-moment things every once in a 
while” (action). 

She no longer ruminated about bad events continually, and her speech was 
now peppered with action statements. 

The Other Side of the Epidemic: 

Women vs. Men 

The crucial role rumination plays in depression may be responsible 
for the arresting fact that depression is primarily female. Study after study 
has found that during the twentieth century, depression has struck women 
more frequently than men. The ratio is now two to one. 



Why should women suffer so much more? 

Is it because women are more willing to go to therapy than men and 
thus show up more frequently in the statistics? No. The same preponder¬ 
ance of women shows up in door-to-door surveys. 

Is it because women are more willing to talk openly about their troubles? 
Probably not. The two-to-one ratio shows up in both public and anonymous 

Is it because women tend to have worse jobs and less money than men 
do? No. The ratio stays two-to-one even when groups of women and men 
are matched for the same jobs and the same income: Rich women have 
twice as much depression as rich men, and unemployed women twice as 
much as unemployed men. 

Is it some sort of biological difference that produces more depression? 
Probably not. Studies of premenstrual and postpartum emotionality show 
that while hormone fluctuations do tend to affect depression, the effect 
isn’t nearly big enough to make a two-to-one difference. 

Is it a genetic difference? Careful studies of how much depression occurs 
among the sons and daughters of male and female depressives show there 
is substantial depression among the sons of male depressives—too much, 
considering the way chromosomes are passed from father to son and from 
mother to daughter, for it to be true that genetics underpins the lopsided 
sex ratio. There is evidence of a genetic contribution to depression, but 
there is no evidence that genes contribute more to depression in women 
than in men. 

Three interesting theories remain. 

The first concerns sex roles—that there is something about a woman’s 
role in our society that makes her fertile ground for depression. 

One fashionable argument in this category is that women are brought 
up to invest in love and in social relations, while men are brought up to 
invest in achievement. A woman’s self-esteem, runs the argument, depends 
on how love and friendship go; social failure, t h erefore—from divorce and 
separation, to children leaving the nest, to a wasted evening with an awful 
blind date—hits women harder than men. This may be true, but it does 
not explain why women are twice as likely to be depressed. For the ar¬ 
gument can be turned around: By this hypothesis, men take failure at work 
more seriously. Bad grades, no promotion, the softball team losing—these 
too deplete a man’s self-esteem. And failure seems just as common in work 
as in love, so the net effect would be just as much depression in men as 
in women. 

Another fashionable sex-role argument dwells on role conflict: There 
are more conflicting demands on women than on men in modern life. A 

How You Think , How You Feel 


woman not only has the traditional role of mother and wife but now must 
hold down a job as well. This extra demand produces more pressure than 
ever before and therefore more depression. The argument sounds plau¬ 
sible; but, like many plausible and ideologically congenial theories, it 
dashes against the rocks of fact. Working wives are less depressed, on 
average, than wives who do not work outside the home. So sex-role ex¬ 
planations do not seem to account for the two-to-one female preponderance 
of depression. 

The second of the remaining theories involves learned helplessness and 
explanatory style. In our society, it is argued, women receive abundant 
experience with helplessness over the course of their lives. Boys’ behavior 
is lauded or criticized by their parents and their teachers, while girls’ is 
often ignored. Boys are trained for self-reliance and activity, girls for pas¬ 
sivity and dependence. When they grow up, women find themselves in a 
culture that depreciates the role of wife and mother. If a woman turns to 
the world of work, she finds her achievements are given less credit than 
men’s. When she speaks in a meeting, she gets more bored nods than a 
man would. If despite all this she manages to excel and is promoted to 
a position of power, she is seen as being out of place. Learned helpless¬ 
ness at every turn. If women tend to have a more pessimistic explanatory 
style than men do, any given helplessness experience will tend to produce 
more depression in a woman than in a man. And indeed there are data 
showing that any given stressful factor causes more depression in women 
than in men. 

This theory is also plausible, but not without its holes. One hole is that 
no one has ever proven that women are more pessimistic than men. Indeed 
the only relevant study of randomly sampled males and females is among 
grade-school children, and it comes out the opposite way. Among third-, 
fourth-, and fifth-graders, boys are more pessimistic than girls and more 
depressed. When parents divorce, the boys get more depressed than the 
girls do. (All this may change at puberty, and indeed it does seem the two- 
to-one depression ratio begins in the teenage years. Something may happen 
at puberty that flips young women into depression and young men out of 
it. More of this later, when we talk about parenting and about school in 
chapters seven and eight.) Another problem is that no one has ever shown 
that women see their lives as more uncontrollable than men do. 

The last of the three theories involves rumination. In this view, when 
trouble strikes, women think and men act. When a woman gets fired from 
her job, she tries to figure out why; she broods, and she relives the events 
over and over. A man, upon getting fired, acts: He gets drunk, beats 
someone up, or otherwise distracts himself from thinking about it. He may 



even go right out and look for another job, without bothering to think 
through what went wrong. If depression is a disorder of thinking, pessimism 
and rumination stoke it. The tendency to analyze feeds right into it; the 
tendency to act breaks it up. 

In fact, depression itself may set off rumination more in women than 
men. When we find ourselves depressed, what do we do? Women try to 
figure out where the depression came from. Men go out to play basketball, 
or leave for the office to work to distract themselves. Men are more often 
alcoholic than women are; perhaps the difference is great enough to enable 
us to say: Men drink, women get depressed. It might be that men drink 
to forget their troubles while women ruminate. The woman, ruminating 
away about the source of the depression, will only get more depressed, 
whereas the man, responding by taking action, may cut depression off. 

The rumination theory just might be able to explain the depression 
epidemic in general as well as the lopsided sex ratio. If we now live in an 
age of self-consciousness, in which we are encouraged to take our problems 
more earnestly and analyze them endlessly rather than act, more depression 
might well be the result. I’ll talk more about this speculation in chapter 

Evidence has poured in recently that supports the role of rumination in 
producing the sex differences in depression. Susan Nolen-Hoeksema of 
Stanford University, who originated the rumination theory, has led the 
way in testing it. When women rate what they actually do (not what they 
should do) when they are depressed, the majority say, “I tried to analyze 
my mood” or “I tried to find out why I felt the way I did.” The majority 
of men, on the other hand, say they did something they enjoyed, like sports 
or playing a musical instrument, or they say, “I decided not to concern 
myself with my mood.” 

The same pattern held in a diary study in which men and women wrote 
down everything they did as bad moods struck: Women thought and ana¬ 
lyzed their mood; men distracted themselves. In a study of couples in 
conflict, each person dictated into a tape recorder what he or she did every 
time there was marital trouble. In overwhelming proportions the women 
focused on and expressed their emotion, and the men distracted themselves 
or decided not to be concerned with their mood. Finally, in a laboratory 
study, men and women were offered a choice of two tasks when they were 
sad. They could choose to list the words that best described their mood (a 
task focusing on the depression) or rank a list of nations in order of their 
wealth (a distracting task). Seventy percent of the women chose the 
emotion-focused task, listing the words that described their mood. With 
men, however, the percentages were reversed. 

How You Think, How You Feel 


So analyzing and wallowing in emotion when distressed seems a likely 
explanation for why women are more depressed than men. This implies 
that men and women experience mild depression at the same rate, but in 
women, who dwell on the state, the mild depression escalates; men, on 
the other hand, dissolve the state by distracting themselves, by action or 
perhaps by drinking it away. 

We are left with two plausible views that have some support. One is that 
women learn more helplessness and pessimism, and the second is that 
women’s likelier first reaction to trouble—rumination—leads right into 

Depression as Curable 

One hundred years ago, the most fashionable explanation for human 
action, particularly bad human action, was character. Words like mean , 
stupid , criminal , evil —these were considered satisfactory explanations for 
bad behavior. Crazy was accepted as an explanation for mental illness. 
These terms denote traits that can’t be changed easily, if at all. As proph¬ 
ecy, they are also self-fulfilling. People who believe themselves stupid, 
rather than uneducated, don’t take action to improve their minds. A society 
that views its criminals as evil and the mentally ill as crazy does not support 
institutions truly designed for rehabilitation but supports, instead, insti¬ 
tutions meant for vengeance or for warehousing human beings to keep 
them out of sight. 

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the labels and the concepts 
behind them began to change. The growing political clout of the massive 
labor force probably began the transformation. Then came wave after wave 
of European and Asian immigrants who visibly bettered themselves in 
less than a generation. Explanations of human failure in terms of abiding 
bad character gave way to suggestions of bad upbringing or bad environ¬ 
ment. Ignorance began to be seen as lack of education, not stupidity, and 
crime as issuing from poverty, not evil. Poverty itself was now thought of 
as lack of opportunity, not sloth. Madness began to be seen as consisting 
of maladaptive habits that could be unlearned. This new ideology, which 
stressed one’s environment, was the backbone of the behaviorism that 
dominated American (and Russian) psychology from 1920 to 1965, from 
Lenin to LBJ. 

Behaviorism’s successor, cognitive psychology, retained the optimistic 
belief in change and wed it to an expanded view of the self, developing 



the thesis that the self could improve itself. People who wanted to reduce 
the amount of human failure in this world could look beyond the difficulties 
of changing the conditions of upbringing and environment; they could 
embrace the prospect that the individual could choose to act on himself. 
For example, curing mental illness no longer rested solely in the hands of 
therapists, social workers, and asylums. It now passed in part into the 
hands of the sufferers. 

This belief is the intellectual underpinning of the self-improvement move¬ 
ment, the wellspring of all those diet books, exercise books, and books on 
changing your personality: your Type A risk for heart attack, your air¬ 
plane phobia, your depression. What is remarkable is that much of this 
self-improving ideology is not claptrap. A society that exalts the self to 
the extent ours does produces an entity that is not a chimera. The self¬ 
improving self actually improves itself. You can indeed lose weight, lower 
your cholesterol level, be physically stronger and more attractive, less 
compulsively time-urgent and reflexively hostile, less pessimistic. 

The belief in self-improvement is a prophecy just as self-fulfilling as the 
old belief that character could not be changed. People who believe they 
don’t have to be sedentary or hostile will try to take the steps that get 
them jogging or make them think twice when trespassed against; people 
who don’t believe change is possible will indeed remain incapable of 
change. A culture believing in self-improvement will support health clubs, 
Alcoholics Anonymous, and psychotherapy. A culture believing that bad 
action stems from bad character and is permanent won’t even try. 

Scientists who speak of a self that can act to change the self are not 
spouting metaphysical boosterism. The computer provides the physical 
model for such claims. A computer, even a PC, can compare its output to 
that of a template (an ideal situation), find the places where the fit is 
imperfect, and move to correct the imperfections. Having done this, it can 
once again compare what it has done to what it should do and, if still 
wrong, act to correct itself again. When the match is perfect, it will stop. 
If a home computer can bring this off, self-improvement should be a breeze 
for the vastly more complex human brain. 

Human beings have been getting severely depressed ever since failure 
began—perhaps not in the droves they do today, but depressed neverthe¬ 
less. And when the medieval swain failed to conquer a fair maiden’s heart, 
his mother told him not to obsess about it, probably without any more 
effect than mothers today have on the depressions their children bring 
home. Then, in the 1980s, along came cognitive therapy, which tries to 
change the way people think about their failures. Its maxims aren’t terribly 
different from the wisdom the grandmothers and preachers of yore had 

How You Think, How You Feel 


tried, without notable success, to impart. But cognitive therapy works. 
What does cognitive therapy do, and why does it work? 

Cognitive Therapy and Depression • 

To an audience that swelled over the 1970s, Aaron Beck and Albert 
Ellis both argued that what we consciously think is what mainly determines 
how we feel. From this thesis a therapy developed that sought to change 
the way the depressed patient consciously thinks about failure, defeat, loss, 
and helplessness. 

Cognitive therapy uses five tactics. 

First, you learn to recognize the automatic thoughts flitting through your 
consciousness at the times you feel worst. Automatic thoughts are very 
quick phrases or sentences, so well practiced as to be almost unnoticed 
and unchallenged. For example, a mother of three children sometimes 
screams at them as she sends them off to school. She feels very depressed 
as a consequence. In cognitive therapy she learns to recognize that right 
after these screaming incidents she always says to herself, “I’m a terrible 
mother—even worse than my own mother.” She learns to become aware 
of these automatic thoughts, and learns that they are her explanations, and 
that those explanations are permanent, pervasive, and personal. 

Second, you learn to dispute the automatic thoughts by marshaling con¬ 
trary evidence. The mother is helped to remember and acknowledge that 
when the kids come home from school, she plays football with them, tutors 
them in geometry, and talks to them sympathetically about their problems. 
She focuses on this evidence and sees that it contradicts her automatic 
thought that she is a bad mother. 

Third, you learn to make different explanations, called reattributions, 
and use them to dispute your automatic thoughts. The mother might learn 
to say something like: “I’m fine with the kids in the p.m. and terrible in 
the a.m. Maybe I’m not a morning person.” That’s a much less permanent 
and pervasive explanation for screaming at the kids in the morning. As 
for the chain of negative explanations that goes, “I’m a terrible mother, 
I’m not fit to have kids, therefore I don’t deserve to live,” she learns to 
interrupt it by inserting the contrary, new explanation. 

Fourth, you learn how to distract yourself from depressing thoughts. 
The mother learns that thinking these negative things now is not inevitable. 
Rumination, particularly when one is under pressure to perform well, 
makes the situation even worse. Often it is better to put off thinking, in 



order to do your best. You can learn to control not only what you think 
but when you think it. 

Fifth, you learn to recognize and question the depression-sowing as¬ 
sumptions governing so much of what you do: 

“I can’t live without love.” 

‘‘Unless everything I do is perfect, I’m a failure.” 

‘‘Unless everybody likes me, I’m a failure.” 

‘‘There is a perfect right solution for every problem. I must find it.” 

Premises like these set you up for depression. If you choose to live by 
them—as so many of us do—your life will be filled with black days and 
blue weeks. But just as a person can change his explanatory style from 
pessimistic to optimistic, he can also choose a new set of more human 
premises to live by: 

“Love is precious but rare.” 

“Success is doing my best.” 

“For every person who likes you, one person doesn’t like you.” 

“Life consists of putting my fingers in the biggest leaks in the dam.” 

The depression suffered by Sophie—the former “golden girl” who had 
come to consider herself unlovable, untalented, “a washout”—is typical 
of the depressions young people are experiencing in unprecedented num¬ 
bers. Her depression had at its core a pessimistic explanatory style. After 
she began cognitive therapy, life quickly turned around for her. Her treat¬ 
ment took a total of three months, one hour per week. Her outside world 
did not change, at least not at first, but the way she thought about it changed 

First, she was helped to see that she had been conducting an unrelievedly 
negative dialogue with herself. She remembered that when she’d made a 
comment in class and had been complimented by the professor, she had 
immediately thought: “She’s just trying to be nice to all the students.” 
When she’d read about Indira Gandhi’s assassination, she’d thought: “All 
women leaders are doomed, one way or another.” When her friend had 
been impotent late one night, she’d thought: “I’m repulsive to him.” 

I asked her, “If a drunk reeling on the street told you you were repulsive, 
would you discount it?” 


“But when you say equally groundless things to yourself, you believe 

How You Think , How You Feel 


them. This is because you think the source, yourself, is more credible. It 
isn’t. Often we distort reality more than drunks do.” 

Sophie soon learned to marshal evidence against her automatic thoughts 
and thus challenge them: She remembered that the professor who had 
complimented her did not in fact flatter everyone but had been quite cutting 
when another student commented in class. She focused on the fact that 
the lover who’d been impotent had drunk an entire six-pack in the hour 
before they made love. She learned a crucial skill: how to conduct an 
optimistic personal dialogue. She learned how to talk to herself when she 
failed and how not to talk to herself when things went well. She learned 
that when she expected to fail, failure became more likely. Her explanatory 
style changed permanently from pessimistic to optimistic. 

Sophie caught fire again academically, and she graduated with high hon¬ 
ors. She began a love affair which is now a fulfilling marriage. 

Unlike most people who are prone to depression, Sophie learned how 
to prevent its return. The difference between Sophie and someone who 
takes antidepressant drugs is that she learned a set of skills to use whenever 
she is faced with failure or defeat—skills she always carries with her. Her 
victory over depression is hers alone, not something she must credit to 
doctors and the latest medication. 

Why Does Cognitive Therapy Work? 

There are two kinds of answers to this question. On a mechanical level, 
cognitive therapy works because it changes explanatory style from pessi¬ 
mistic to optimistic, and the change is permanent. It gives you a set of 
cognitive skills for talking to yourself when you fail. You can use these 
skills to stop depression from taking hold when failure strikes. 

At a philosophical level, cognitive therapy works because it takes ad¬ 
vantage of newly legitimized powers of the self. In an era when we believe 
the self can change itself, we are willing to try to change habits of thought 
which used to seem as inevitable as sunrise. Cognitive therapy works in 
our era because it gives the self a set of techniques for changing itself. The 
self chooses to do this work out of self-interest, to make itself feel better. 

Part Two 

The Realms of Life 

Meanwhile, the Ice Kings trembled in their chairs 
But not from the cold—they’d seen a man hoist high 
The Great Horn-Cup that ends deep in the ocean 
And lower all Seven Seas by his own stature; 

They’d seen him budge the Cat of the World and heft 
The pillar of one paw, the whole north comer; 

They’d seen a mere man wrestle with Death herself 
And match her knee for knee, grunting like thunder. 

David Wagoner 
“The Labors of Thor” 


Success at Work 

On long flights, I usually take the window seat and curl up facing 
the window, mostly to avoid having to make conversation with my seat- 
mate. I was annoyed one day in March 1982, at the beginning of flight 79 
from San Francisco to Philadelphia, to find that my tactics were of no avail. 
“Hi,” my seatmate, a balding sixty-year-old, said heartily. “My name is 
John Leslie. What’s yours?” He pushed his hand at mine. “Oh no,” I said 
to myself, “a gabby one.” I mumbled my name and gave him a perfunctory 
handshake, hoping he’d get the message. 

Leslie would not be denied. “I raise horses,” he said as the plane taxied 
down the runway. “When I come to a crossroad, all I have to do is think 
which way I want the horse to go, and he goes that way. In my job, I 
raise men—and all I have to do is think what I want them to do, and 
they do it.” 

Thus began the chance, uninvited conversation which started a dramatic 
shift in the focus of my work. 

Leslie was persistent, a full-blown optimist who seemed to have no doubt 
that I would be enthralled by his words of wisdom. And in fact, as the 
plane neared Nevada, with the snowcapped Sierras beneath us, I found 
myself being drawn in. “My people,” he announced, “developed the video 
recorder for Ampex. That was the most creative group I ever led.” 

“What separates your creative groups from your turkeys?” I asked. 

“Each person,” he said, “every one of them, believes he can walk on 

By Utah, I was hooked. What he was telling me matched what I had 
been seeing in people who resisted depression. 



“How can you make someone creative?” I asked him. 

“I’ll show you,” he replied. “But first, what do you do for a living?” 

I gave him a brief rundown on what I had been up to for the last fifteen 
years. I told him about helpless people and animals and how helplessness 
had proved to be a model for depression. I told him about pessimistic 
explanatory style and the pessimists who gave up so easily moments after 
experiencing loss of control. “These were the people,” I said, “who, outside 
the lab, came down with serious depression.” 

“Have you done much work about the other side of the coin?” Leslie 
asked. “Can you predict who’ll never give up and who won’t become 
depressed no matter what you do to them?” 

“I haven’t thought about them enough,” I confessed. 

Actually, I had been uneasy for some time about psychology’s fixation 
upon disease. My profession spends most of its time (and almost all of its 
money) trying to make the troubled less troubled. Helping troubled people 
is a worthy goal, but somehow psychology almost never gets around to the 
complementary goal of making the lives of well people even better. With 
Leslie’s prompting I was beginning to see that my work was germane to 
the other goal. If I could identify in advance the people who would get 
depressed, I should also be able to identify those who never would. 

John asked whether I could think of some business pursuits in which it 
was essential to keep going in the face of constant rejection and failure. 

“Maybe sales,” I replied, thinking of a speech I’d given a few months 
before to a group of insurance-company presidents. “Selling life insurance, 
say.” In life insurance, they’d told me, nine out of ten prospects brush you 
off. You have to pick yourself up and keep going just to get to the tenth. 
It’s like hitting against a great pitcher: Most of the time you swing and 
miss, but to get on base you’ve got to keep swinging. If you keep the bat 
on your shoulder, you always strike out. 

I thought back to a conversation I’d had that weekend with John Cree- 
don, the head of Metropolitan Life. After my speech Creedon asked me 
if psychology had anything to tell the corporation manager. Could we, for 
example, help him pick out the people who could successfully sell insur¬ 
ance? And could we develop ways to change foot-dragging pessimists into 
“Yes, I can” optimists? I had told Creedon I did not know. I now narrated 
that conversation to Leslie, and by the time we began our descent to 
Philadelphia, he had me promising to write Creedon a letter. And I did 
write him, to say that I thought we could perhaps pick out future successes. 

I never saw Leslie again. Soon after he buoyantly suggested that I shift 
my attention from pessimism to optimism, from failure to success, I did 
just that. My subsequent research showed repeatedly that optimists do 

Success at Work 


better in school, win more elections, and succeed more at work than pes¬ 
simists do. They even seem to lead longer and healthier lives. As a therapist 
and a teacher of therapists I found that pessimism can be changed into 
optimism, not just in depressed people but in normal people as well. 

It often occurred to me that I owed Leslie a letter. If I’d written it, I’d 
have told him about my research on optimism. 

Consider the rest of this book that letter. 

Three weeks after that flight, I found myself high in one of Metropolitan 
Life’s twin towers in Manhattan, treading the deepest-pile woolen carpets 
I had ever trod into the gleaming, oak-paneled inner sanctum of John 
Creedon. A cheerful and perceptive man in his mid-fifties, he had grasped 
the potential of optimism for his industry long before I had. He explained 
the perennial problem that Metropolitan and all insurance companies have 
with their sales forces. 

“Selling is not easy,” he began. “It requires persistence. It’s an unusual 
person who can do it well and stick with it. Every year we hire five thousand 
new agents. We select them very carefully out of the sixty thousand people 
who apply. We test them, we screen them, we interview them, we give 
them extensive training. But half of them quit anyway in the first year. 
Most of those Who stay on produce less and less. By the end of the fourth 
year eighty percent are gone. It costs us more than thirty thousand dollars 
to hire a single agent. So we lose over seventy-five million dollars every 
year in hiring costs alone. And our figures are typical of the whole industry. 

“I’m not just talking about money Met Life loses, Dr. Seligman,” he 
continued. “Whenever an employee quits a job, I’m talking about human 
misery, about your field—depression. When fifty percent of a whole in¬ 
dustry quits every year, there’s an important humanitarian mission here— 
to try to better the ‘person-environment fit.’ 

“What I want to know is, can your test pick out in advance the people 
who will make the best agents, so we can stem this flow of wasted human 

“Why does quitting typically happen?” I asked. 

Creedon outlined the process of giving up. “Every single day even the 
best agent has quite a few people say no, usually a number of them right 
in a row. So it s easy for the average agent to get discouraged. Once they 
get discouraged, they take the no’s harder and harder; it takes more and 
more effort foi} them to get up and make the next call. They put off making 
that next call. They spend more and more time fiddling around and doing 
things that keep them away from the telephone and off the road. This 



makes it even harder to make the next call. Their production falls off, and 
they start to think about quitting. When they hit that wall, few of them 
know how to get over, under, or around it. 

“Remember,” he said, “these are people with a lot of independence— 
that’s one of the attractions of the business—so we aren’t looking over 
their shoulders constantly and prodding them when they slow down. Re¬ 
member this, too: Only those agents who keep making their ten calls each 
day, and don’t get fazed by rejection, succeed.” 

The Explanatory Style of Success 

I explained the theory of learned helplessness and explanatory style 
to Creedon. Then I told him about the optimism/pessimism questionnaire 
(see chapter three). Time and time again, I said, it has been shown that 
people who score pessimistically on the questionnaire give up easily and 
become depressed. 

But the questionnaire, I went on, doesn’t identify just pessimists. Its 
scores are continuous and range from deeply pessimistic to irrepressibly 
optimistic. The people who score at the very optimistic end, I said, should 
be the most persistent. They’re the most immune to helplessness. They 
should never give up, no matter how much rejection and failure they 

“These invulnerable optimists have never really been looked at before,” 
I said, “and they may be exactly the people who’ll succeed in a job as 
challenging as selling insurance.” 

“Tell me exactly how optimism could help,” Creedon replied. “Let’s 
take cold calling, a crucial part of selling life insurance. In cold calling, 
you have a list of possible prospects, like the names of all the parents of 
new babies in a town. You start calling, from the top of the list, and you 
try to make a face-to-face appointment. Most people say, ‘No, I’m not 
interested’—or even just hang up on you.” 

I explained that optimistic explanatory style should affect not what the 
insurance agent says to prospects but what he says to himself when the 
prospect says no. Pessimistic salesmen, I told Creedon, will say permanent, 
pervasive, and personal things to themselves, like “I’m no good” or “No 
one wants to buy insurance from me” or “I can’t even get to first base.” 
This undoubtedly will produce the giving-up response and make it harder 
to dial the next prospect. After several such episodes, I predicted, the 
pessimistic agent will quit for the evening—and eventually quit altogether. 

Success at Work 


The optimistic agent, on the other hand, will talk to himself in more 
constructive ways: “He was too busy right now,” or “They already have 
insurance, but eight of ten people are underinsured,” or “I called during 
supper.” Or he’ll say nothing at all to himself. The next call won’t be any 
harder to make, and within a few minutes the agent will have gotten through 
to the one person in ten, on average, who makes an appointment. This 
will energize the agent, so he’ll breeze through the next ten calls and get 
another appointment. In this way he’ll live up to his selling potential. 

Even before I walked in his door, Creedon, like many other insurance 
executives, knew that optimism was the key to sales success. He had been 
waiting for someone who could measure it. We decided to start with a 
simple correlational study, to see if already successful salesmen were also 
extremely optimistic. If they were, we would proceed step by step. Our 
eventual aim was to create a whole new way of selecting the sales force. 
We used a questionnaire different from the questionnaire you took in 
chapter three. In this open-ended ASQ (Attributional Style Questionnaire) 
are twelve vignettes, little scenarios. Half are about bad events (e.g., “You 
go out on a date, and it goes badly....”), and half are about good events 

(e.g., “You suddenly become rich_”). You are asked to imagine the event 

happening to you and to fill in the most likely cause. For example, to explain 
the first vignette you might say, “I have bad breath,” and for the second, 
“I’m a brilliant investor.” 

You are then asked to rate the cause you supplied, on a one-to-seven 
scale, for personalization. (“Is this cause something about other people or 
circumstances [external], or is it something about you [internal]?”) You’re 
then asked to rate it for permanence. (“Will this cause never again be 
present when looking for a job [temporary] or always be present [per¬ 
manent]?”) And finally you rate it for pervasiveness. (“Does this cause 
affect only looking for a job [specific] or all other areas of your life 

For our first try, we gave the questionnaire to two hundred experienced 
sales agents, half of whom were eagles (very productive) and half turkeys 
(unproductive). The eagles scored much more optimistically on the ques¬ 
tionnaire than the turkeys did. When we matched test scores to actual sales 
records, we found that agents who scored in the most optimistic half of 
the ASQ had sold 37 percent more insurance on average in their first two 
years of work than agents who scored in the pessimistic half. 

Agents who scored in the top 10 percent sold 88 percent more than the 
most pessimistic tenth. In our quest to find out how useful our test might 
be in the world of business, this was an encouraging beginning. 



Testing for Talent 

Over many years the insurance industry developed a test meant to 
discover a person’s suitability for a sales career. The Career Profile is 
published by the Life Insurance Management Research Association. All 
applicants to Met Life must take a Career Profile, and to be hired they 
need to score 12 or better. Only the top 30 percent of applicants attain 
this score. Those who get a 12 or better are interviewed, and if the manager 
likes what he sees, they are offered a job. 

In general, for any line of work two kinds of questionnaires can predict 
potential for success: empirical and theory-based. An empirical test starts 
with people who have, in fact, succeeded on the job and people who have, 
in fact, failed. It throws a large number of random questions at them, 
covering all of life: “Do you like classical music?” “Do you want to earn 
a lot of money?” “Do you have a lot of relatives?” “How old are you?” 
“Do you like to go to parties?” Most of the questions don’t separate the 
eagles from the turkeys, but a few hundred will turn out to. (You just 
determine which questions happen to work and use those; no theory at all 
is involved.) These few hundred questions become the test items used to 
predict future successes at that job. The suitable applicant will have to 
have the same “profile”—the same sets of ages, backgrounds and attitudes, 
in short, the same answers—as the typical successful worker already in that 
field. Empirical tests, then, in effect admit at the outset that why someone 
succeeds is a complete mystery; they merely use the questions that happen 
to separate eagles from turkeys. 

Theory-based tests, on the other hand, like IQ tests or the SAT, ask 
only questions deduced from a theory—in this case, a theory of ability. 
The theory behind the SAT, for example, is that “intelligence” consists of 
verbal skills (reading comprehension, ability to understand analogies, etc.) 
and of mathematical-analytic skills (algebra, geometry, etc.). Since these 
skills are fundamental to how you do schoolwork, performing well on them 
should predict future success in school. And it does, quite respectably. 

But both empirical and theory-based tests make a notoriously large num¬ 
ber of mistakes, even though on the whole they predict with statistical 
accuracy. Many people who score poorly on the SATs will do well in 
college, and many people who score well will flunk out. Even more obvious 
was Met Life’s problem: A great many people who score well on the Career 
Profile sell poorly. But could many of those who scored poorly on the 
Career Profile go on to sell insurance well? Met Life didn’t know, since it 

Success at Work 


hired almost none of them. The company was therefore left with jobs open, 
since not enough applicants could pass the Career Profile. If a substantial 
number of applicants failed the industry test but would sell as much in¬ 
surance as those who passed it, Met Life could solve its severe manpower 

The ASQ is a theory-based test, but it is based on a theory very different 
from traditional wisdom about success. Traditional wisdom holds that there 
are two ingredients of success, and you need both to succeed. The first is 
ability or aptitude, and IQ tests and the SAT are supposed to measure it. 
The second is desire or motivation. No matter how much aptitude you 
have, says traditional wisdom, if you lack desire you will fail. Enough 
desire can make up for meager talent. 

I believe the traditional wisdom is incomplete. A composer can have all 
the talent of a Mozart and a passionate desire to succeed, but if he believes 
he cannot compose music, he will come to nothing. He will not try hard 
enough. He will give up too soon when the elusive right melody takes too 
long to materialize. Success requires persistence, the ability to not give up 
in the face of failure. I believe that optimistic explanatory style is the key 
to persistence. 

The explanatory-style theory of success says that in order to choose 
people for success in a challenging job, you need to select for three 

1. aptitude 

2. motivation 

3. optimism 

All three determine success. 

Testing Explanatory Style at Met Life 

There are two possible explanations of why in our first study the good 
sales agents had more optimistic ASQ scores than the bad agents. One 
explanation confirms the theory that optimism produces success; it says 
that optimism causes you to sell well and pessimism makes you sell badly. 
The other explanation is that selling well makes you optimistic and selling 
badly makes you pessimistic. 

Our next step was to find out which causes which, by measuring optimism 
at the time of hiring and seeing who went on to do best over the next year. 



To test our theory, we took the first 104 agents hired in western Pennsyl¬ 
vania in January 1983. All had already passed the Career Profile and 
received their preappointment training. Each then took the ASQ. We 
thought we’d have to wait a year until the production data came in to find 
out anything important. As it happened, we had no wait. 

We were stunned by how optimistic new insurance agents are. Their 
group average G - B score (the difference between explanatory style for 
good events and explanatory style for bad events) was over 7.00. This is 
far above the national average and suggests that all but the most optimistic 
need not apply. Life insurance agents, as a group, are more optimistic than 
people from any other walk of life we have ever tested: car salesmen, 
commodity traders who scream all day long in the pits, West Point plebes, 
managers of Arby’s restaurants, the candidates for the office of President 
of the United States during this century, major-league baseball stars, or 
world-class swimmers.* We had picked exactly the right profession to start 
with, one that requires very strong optimism just to enter and extreme 
optimism to succeed in. 

One year later we looked at how the agents fared. As John Creedon 
had warned us, more than half the agents had quit; 59 of the 104 quit 
during the first year. 

Who quit? 

Agents who scored in the less optimistic half of the ASQ were twice as 
likely to quit as agents who scored in the more optimistic half. Agents who 
scored in the least optimistic quarter were three times likelier to quit than 
agents who scored in the most optimistic quarter. In contrast, the people 
with the lowest scores on the Career Profile weren’t any likelier to quit 
than those with high scores. 

How about the bottom line, dollars produced? 

The agents from the top half of the ASQ sold 20 percent more insurance 
than the less optimistic agents from the bottom half. The agents from the 
top quarter sold 50 percent more than the agents from the bottom quarter. 
Here the Career Profile was predictive as well. Agents who scored in the 
top half of the Career Profile sold 37 percent more than agents who scored 
in the bottom half. Taking the two tests together (they don’t duplicate 
each other; each contributes its own distinct perspective), we saw that 
agents who scored in the upper half of both sold 56 percent more than 
agents who scored in the bottom half of both. So optimism predicted who 
survived, and it predicted who sold the most—and it did so about as well 
as the industry test. 

* Our method of testing the optimism of people who cannot or did not take the ASQ is 
called content analysis of verbatim explanations, or CAVE. It is described on page 132. 

Success at Work 


Did this study adequately test the theory and the power of optimism to 
predict sales success? No. Several questions still needed answering before 
Met Life would be completely convinced that the ASQ predicts success as 
a salesman. First, only 104 people were studied, and the sample, coming 
entirely from western Pennsylvania, might have been unrepresentative. 
Second, the agents took the test under no pressure at all, because they 
had already been hired. What if Met Life now began to hire agents using 
the ASQ and some applicants, knowing that getting hired depended on 
how well they did, tried to fake their answers? If they succeeded, that 
would invalidate the test. 

It was fairly easy to erase our worry about cheating. We ran a special 
study in which certain test-takers were told how to cheat (“Just appear as 
optimistic as you can”) and given an incentive to cheat as well—a $100 
reward for the best score. But even with knowledge and incentive, they 
scored no higher than their fellow test-takers. In other words, this is a hard 
test to cheat on, and being coached to appear as optimistic as possible 
doesn’t work. Even if you study this book, you will find it difficult to cheat 
effectively on our optimism tests, since the right answers vary from test to 
test and we include “lie scales” to pick out cheaters. 

The Special Force Study 

We werenow ready for a full-blown study in which the applicants took 
the test under real hiring conditions. In early 1985, fifteen thousand ap¬ 
plicants to Met Life nationwide took both the ASQ and the Career Profile. 

We had two goals. The first was to hire one thousand agents by the usual 
criterion, passing the Career Profile. For these thousand agents, the ASQ 
score did not enter into the hiring decision. We wanted only to see if the 
optimists on this regular force would go on to outsell the pessimists. 

The second goal was much riskier for Met Life. We decided to create a 
“special force” of optimistic agents—applicants who had barely failed the 
Career Profile (scoring from 9 to 11) but had scored in the top half of the 
ASQ. Over a hundred agents who no one else would hire, because they 
failed the industry test, would be taken on. They would not know they 
were special agents. If this group failed utterly, Met Life stood to lose 
about three million dollars in training costs. 

So one thousand of the fifteen thousand applicants were hired into the 
regular force; half were optimists and half were pessimists. (I said above 
that as a rule applicants are very optimistic. But of course, half the ap¬ 
plicants fall below the average, some of them well below, which is where 



we found the pessimistic applicants.) And 129 more—all of whom had 
scored in the top half of the ASQ, and thus were genuine optimists, but 
had failed the Career Profile—were hired as well. They made up the op¬ 
timistic special force. 

Over the next two years the new agents were monitored, and this is how 
they did: 

In the first year, the optimists in the regular force outsold the pessimists, 
but only by 8 percent. In the second year, the optimists sold 31 percent 

As for the special force, it did beautifully. They outsold the pessimists 
in the regular force by 21 percent during the first year, and by 57 percent 
in the second year. They even outsold the average of the regular force 
over the first two years, by 27 percent. In fact, they sold at least as much 
as the optimists in the regular force. 

We also saw that the optimists kept improving over the pessimists. Why? 
Our theory had been that optimism matters because it produces persis¬ 
tence. At first, we expected, talent and motivation for selling should be at 
least as important as persistence. But as time goes on and the mountain 
of no’s accumulates, persistence should become decisive. This proved to 
be exactly the pattern. 

The optimism test predicted selling results as least as accurately as the 
Career Profile did. 

The Special Force 

Who was hired into the special force? Let me tell you about Robert 
Dell, and the day my theory took on flesh and blood. 

Success Magazine heard about the special-force study and interviewed 
me. In 1987 they published an article about optimism and the supersales¬ 
man, which began with a profile of a man named Robert Dell, who was 
supposed to be a typical member of Met Life’s special force. Dell, said 
the article, had worked in a slaughterhouse and had gotten a pink slip after 
years on the job. He applied to Met Life and, in spite of failing the Career 
Profile, had been hired because of his high score on the ASQ. According 
to the article, he had become a star salesman, because he was not only 
persistent but imaginative. He found customers in places where no one 
else even looked. 

I had assumed “Robert Dell” was a fictional character—a composite, 
typical special-force agent. But one day a few weeks after the article came 
out, my secretary told me I had a call from a Mr. Robert Dell. I snatched 

Success at Work 


up the receiver. “Robert Dell?” I asked. “Robert Dell? You mean you 
really exist?” 

“I’m real,” said a deep voice on the other end of the line. “They didn’t 
make me up.” 

Dell told me that what the magazine had reported was true, and added 
to the story. He had worked in an eastern Pennsylvania slaughterhouse 
for twenty-six years, all of his adult life. The work was grueling, but at 
least he was working in the scrapple kitchen, not quite as bad as some of 
the other jobs. Then demand went down. The union contract guaranteed 
him a minimum amount of work time, but he was told he’d have to put 
in that time on the killing floor. It was disturbing work for him. The 
company’s business got worse, and one Monday morning he reported to 
work to find a small sign on the front door. It read closed. 

“I wasn’t about to collect welfare for the rest of my life,” Dell told me, 
“so I answered a blind ad three or four days later, for people who wanted 
to sell insurance. I’d never sold anything and didn’t know if I could, but 
I took your test, and, what do you know, Met Life wanted to hire me.” 

Losing his slaughterhouse job, he said, proved to be a blessing in disguise. 
In his first year on the special force he earned 50 percent more than he 
had in the slaughterhouse. In his second year he had doubled his slaugh¬ 
terhouse salary. Furthermore, he loved the work, particularly the freedom 
to set his own limits and discipline himself. 

“But I had a terrible morning today,” he went on. “I’d written a huge 
policy. It had taken me months to nurse it along—the biggest policy I’d 
ever written. And then, a couple of hours ago, Met Life’s underwriting 
department turned it down. So I decided to call you.” 

“That’s great, Mr. Dell,” I replied, not catching on. “I’m glad you did.” 

“Dr. Seligman, this article told me that you’ve picked out a whole force 
of winners for Met Life, people who keep going even when bad things 
happen, like what happened to me this morning. I assume you didn’t do 
this for free.” 

“That’s true.” 

“Well, I think you should return the favor and buy from me.” 

I did. 

Met Life’s New Hiring Policy 

In th e 1 950s Met Life was the giant of the insurance industry, employing 
over 20,000 agents. Over the next thirty years, Met decided to cut back 
its sales force and rely on other means to sell insurance and other products. 



By 1987, when we were just completing the special force study, Met Life 
had long ago been displaced by Prudential as the industry leader and its 
sales force had withered to just over eight thousand agents. A new, forceful 
leadership of the sales force was needed to reverse the slide. John Creedon 
brought in Bob Crimmins, a silver-haired dynamo with astonishing ora¬ 
torical charisma. Crimmins in turn recruited Dr. Howard Mase, an enor¬ 
mously successful trainer and developer of managers for CitiCorp, to 
breathe new life into selection and training. Their ambitious goal was to 
increase the sales force dramatically—to ten thousand the next year and, 
if that worked, to twelve thousand the year after—and by so doing to 
increase Met Life’s market share. But they wanted to keep the quality of 
the force high at the same time. It looked to them as if our special force 
study could help, since we had demonstrated on a massive scale that op¬ 
timism predicts success, above and beyond traditional criteria for hiring. 

So Met Life decided to give the ASQ to all its applicants from then on, 
and as a major part of their bold strategy started hiring people according 
to their optimism. They used us well. 

Under Crimmins’s and Mase’s leadership, Met Life adopted a two- 
pronged strategy for selecting new agents. The company hires applicants 
who score in the top half of the ASQ and fail the Career Profile by just a 
little. This makes for a large number of agents who would not even have 
been considered using the old strategy. In addition, the most pessimistic 
25 percent aren’t hired even if they pass the Career Profile. So the predicted 
problem employees, who used to be such expensive failures for the com¬ 
pany, now are not hired. With this strategy, Met Life has exceeded its goal 
and expanded the sales force to more than twelve thousand. I’m told that 
by doing so Met has increased its share of the personal-insurance market 
by almost 50 percent. The company has not only a larger sales force, but 
a better one. By one measure of production, they have now regained the 
lead in the industry. 

By using the ASQ, Bob Crimmins and Howard Mase had gone a long 
way to satisfying Met Life’s manpower needs in less than two years. 

Changing Pessimists into Optimists 

I was in John Creedon’s office again. The pile of the carpets was still 
deep, the oak paneling still glowed, but all of us were somewhat older. 
When we’d first met seven years before, at my talk to the chief executive 
officers of life-insurance companies, John had just become CEO of Met 

Success at Work 


Life and I’d had a gleam in my eye about optimism and success. John had 
risen to national prominence as a leader of the American business com¬ 
munity. Now he told me he was retiring in a year. 

We reviewed what we had accomplished. We had found that optimism 
could be measured and, as we hoped, could predict a person’s success as 
a life-insurance agent. Not only had we changed the selection strategy of 
this immense company, but the selection policy of the whole industry was 
now showing signs of change. 

“One thing bothers me still,” John said. “Every business is stuck with 
some pessimists. Some are entrenched by seniority, others are around 
because they’re good at what they do. As I’ve gotten older,” he continued, 
“I find the pessimists weigh on me more and more. They always tell me 
what I can’t do. They only tell me what’s wrong. I know it’s not their 
intention, but they curdle action, imagination, and initiative. I believe that 
most of them—and certainly the company—would be better off if they 
were more optimistic. 

“So, here’s my question. Can you take a person who’s had thirty or even 
fifty years of practice at thinking pessimistically and change him into an 

The answer to that question is yes. But Creedon was now talking not 
about sales agents but about his executive corps, particularly the conser¬ 
vative bureaucracy that, whoever the CEO, has so much practical control 
over any institution. I didn’t know exactly how to go about reforming a 
bureaucracy. Executives can’t be ordered to take tests and seminars the 
way agents can. Not even Creedon, perhaps, could require them to undergo 
cognitive therapy, singly or en masse. But, even if he could, would it be 
wise to teach them optimism? 

That night, and for many nights after, I thought about John’s request. 
Is there a proper role for pessimism in a well-run corporation? Is there a 
proper role for pessimism in a well-run life? 

Why Pessimism? 

Pessimism is all around us. Some people are continually afflicted with 
it. All but the most optimistic among us have bouts of it. Is pessimism one 
of nature’s colossal mistakes, or does it have a valuable place in the scheme 
of things? 

Pessimism may support the realism we so often need. In many arenas 
of life, optimism is unwarranted. At times we do fail irretrievably, and 



seeing those times through rose-colored glasses may console us but will 
not change them. In some situations—the cockpit of an airliner, for ex¬ 
ample—what’s needed is not an upbeat view but a mercilessly realistic one. 
Sometimes we need to cut our losses and invest elsewhere rather than find 
reasons to hold on. 

When Creedon asked me if I could change the pessimism of Metropolitan 
Life executives, I was less worried about my ability to change pessimism 
into optimism than I was about the harm I might do. Maybe some of the 
pessimism his executives brought to their jobs accomplished something 
important. Someone has to dampen overly enthusiastic plans. These pes¬ 
simists had risen to the top of America’s corporate ladder—they had to be 
doing something right. 

That evening, thinking back over John’s complaint, I once again pon¬ 
dered a question that had long nagged at me: Why has evolution allowed 
depression and pessimism to exist at all? Certainly optimism seems to have 
an evolutionary role. In his acute, speculative book Optimism: The Biology 
of Hope Lionel Tiger argues that the human species has been selected by 
evolution because of its optimistic illusions about reality. How else could 
a species have evolved that plants seeds in April and holds on through 
drought and famine until October, that stands up alone before charging 
mastodons and waves small sticks, that commences to build cathedrals that 
will take several lifetimes to complete? The capacity to act on the hope 
that reality will turn out better than it usually does is behind such coura¬ 
geous, or foolhardy, behavior. 

Or consider this: Many people believe there is no God, that the only 
purposes in life are those people manage to create for themselves, and 
that when they die, they rot. If this is so, why are so many of these same 
people cheerful? The capacity to blind ourselves to our own deeply held 
negative beliefs may be our remarkable defense against succumbing con¬ 
tinually to depression. 

But what, then, is the role of pessimism? Perhaps it corrects for some¬ 
thing we do only poorly when we are optimistic and not depressed— 
namely, appreciating reality accurately. 

It’s a disturbing idea, that depressed people see reality correctly while 
nondepressed people distort reality in a self-serving way. As a therapist I 
was trained to believe that it was my job to help depressed patients both 
to feel happier and to see the world more clearly. I was supposed to be 
the agent of happiness and of truth. But maybe truth and happiness an¬ 
tagonize each other. Perhaps what we have considered good therapy for 
a depressed patient merely nurtures benign illusions, making the patient 
think his world is better than it actually is. 

Success at Work 


There is considerable evidence that depressed people, though sadder, 
are wiser. 

Ten years ago Lauren Alloy and Lyn Abramson, then graduate students 
at the University of Pennsylvania, did an experiment in which people were 
given differing degrees of control over the lighting of a light. Some were 
able to control the light perfectly: It went on every time they pressed a 
button, and it never went on if they didn’t press. The other people, how¬ 
ever, had no control at all: The light went on regardless of whether they 
pressed the button. 

The people in both groups were asked to judge, as accurately as they 
could, how much control they had. Depressed people were very accurate, 
both when they had control and when they didn’t. The nondepressed people 
shocked us. They were accurate when they had control, but when helpless 
they were undeterred: they still judged that they had a great deal of control. 

Wondering if lights and button pushing just didn’t matter enough to the 
people. Alloy and Abramson added monetary incentives to the test: When 
the light went on the subjects won money, but when the light didn’t go on 
they lost money. But the benign distortions of nondepressed people did 
not go away; rather, they got even bigger. Under one condition all the 
people had some control, but the task was rigged so that everyone lost 
money. In this situation, nondepressed people said they had less control 
than they actually had. When the task was rigged so that they won money, 
nondepressed people said they had more control than they actually had. 
Depressed people, on the other hand, were rock solid, exactly accurate 
whether they won or lost. 

These have been the consistent findings over the last decade. Depressed 
people—most of whom turn out to be pessimists—accurately judge how 
much control they have. Nondepressed people—optimists, for the most 
part—believe they have much more control over things than they actually 
do, particularly when they are helpless and have no control at all. 

Another kind of evidence for the thesis that depressed people, though 
sadder, are wiser involves judgments of skill. Several years ago, Newsweek 
reported that 80 percent of American men think they are in the top half 
of social skills. They must have been nondepressed American men, if the 
results of Peter Lewinsohn, a psychologist at the University of Oregon, 
and his colleagues are valid. These investigators put depressed and non¬ 
depressed patients in a panel discussion and later had the patients judge 
how well they did. To what extent were they persuasive? Likable? As 
judged by a panel of observers, depressed patients weren’t very persuasive 
or likable; poor social skills are a symptom of depression. Depressed pa¬ 
tients judged their lack of skill accurately. The surprising finding was from 

I 10 


the nondepressed group. They markedly overestimated their skills, judging 
themselves as much more persuasive and appealing than the judges thought 
they were. 

Still another variety of evidence concerns memory. In general, depressed 
subjects recall more bad events and fewer good events than nondepressed 
subjects, who show the reverse pattern. But who is right? That is, if the 
real number of good and bad events in the world could be known, who 
would see the past accurately and who would distort the past? 

When I first became a therapist, I was taught that it was useless to ask 
depressed patients about their past, if you wanted to get an accurate picture 
of their lives. All you would ever hear was how their parents didn’t love 
them, how their business ventures always failed, and how dreadful their 
hometown was. But could it be they were right? This could easily be tested 
in the laboratory by having people take a test, managed so that they are 
wrong twenty times and right twenty times. Later you ask them how they 
did. The evidence seems to be that depressives are accurate: they tell you, 
for example, that they got twenty-one right and nineteen wrong. It is the 
nondepressed people who distort the past: They may tell you they got 
twelve wrong and twenty-eight right. 

A final category of evidence in the matter of whether depressed people 
are sadder but wiser involves explanatory style. Judging by the explanations 
of nondepressed people, failure is indeed an orphan, as the saying goes, 
and success has a thousand fathers. Depressives, however, own up to both 
failure and success. 

This pattern has consistently emerged in all of our studies of explanatory 
style: lopsidedness among nondepressives and evenhandedness among de¬ 
pressives. The questionnaire you took in chapter three had half bad events 
and half good events, to which you assigned causes. You computed an 
overall G-B score, which was your average for good events minus your 
average for bad events. How did your total compare to that of depressives? 
A depressive’s explanatory style is roughly the same for good and bad 
events; that is, to the extent a depressive is a bit above average on personal, 
permanent, and pervasive explanations for good events, he is also a bit 
above average on personal, permanent, and pervasive explanations for bad 
events. A depressive’s total G-B score is around o; he is evenhanded. 

A nondepressive’s score is well above o, very lopsided. If it’s bad, you 
did it to me, it’ll be over soon, and it’s only this situation. But if it’s good, 
I did it, it’s going to last forever, and it’s going to help me in many situations. 
For nondepressives, bad events tend to be external, temporary, and spe¬ 
cific, but good events are personal, permanent and pervasive. The more 
optimistic their judgments are, the more lopsided. A depressed person, in 

Success at Work 


contrast, sees his successes as caused by the same sorts of factors as his 

Overall, then, there is clear evidence that nondepressed people distort 
reality in a self-serving direction and depressed people tend to see reality 
accurately. How does this evidence, which is about depression, tie into 
optimism and pessimism? Statistically, most depressed people score in the 
pessimistic range of explanatory style, and most nondepressed people score 
optimistically. This means that, on average, optimistic people will distort 
reality and pessimists, as Ambrose Bierce defined them, will “see the world 
aright.” The pessimist seems to be at the mercy of reality, whereas the 
optimist has a massive defense against reality that maintains good cheer 
in the face of a relentlessly indifferent universe. It is important to remem¬ 
ber, however* that this relationship is statistical, and that pessimists do not 
have a lock on reality. Some realists, the minority, are optimists, and some 
distorters, also the minority, are pessimists. 

Is depressive accuracy just a laboratory curiosity? I don’t think so. Rather 
it leads us to the very heart of what pessimism is really about. It is our 
first solid clue about why we have depression at all, the closest we’ve come 
to an answer to the question asked earlier: why evolution has allowed 
pessimism and depression to survive and prosper. If pessimism is at the 
base of depression and suicide, if it results in lower achievement, and as 
we will see, in poor immune function and in ill health, why didn’t it die 
out epochs ago? What counterweighting function does pessimism serve for 
the human species? 

The benefits of pessimism may have arisen during our recent evolutionary 
history. We are animals of the Pleistocene, the epoch of the ice ages. Our 
emotional makeup has most recently been shaped by one hundred thousand 
years of climactic catastrophe: waves of cold and heat; drought and flood; 
plenty and sudden famine. Those of our ancestors who survived the Pleis¬ 
tocene may have done so because they had the capacity to worry incessantly 
about the future, to see sunny days as mere prelude to a harsh winter, to 
brood. We have inherited these ancestors’ brains and therefore their ca¬ 
pacity to see the cloud rather than the silver lining. 

Sometimes and in some niches in modern life, this deep-seated pessimism 
works. Think about a successful large business. It has a diverse set of 
personalities serving different roles. First, there are the optimists. The 
researchers and developers, the planners, the marketers—all these need 
to be visionaries. They have to dream things that don’t yet exist, to explore 
boundaries beyond the company’s present reach. If they don’t, the com¬ 
petition will. But imagine a company that consisted only of optimists, all 
of them fixed upon the exciting possibilities ahead. It would be a disaster. 

I 12 


The company also needs its pessimists, the people who have an accurate 
knowledge of present realities. They must make sure grim reality contin¬ 
ually intrudes upon the optimists. The treasurer, the CPAs, the financial 
vice-president, the business administrators, the safety engineers—all these 
need an accurate sense of how much the company can afford, and of danger. 
Their role is to caution, their banner is the yellow flag. 

One should hasten to say that these people may not be the full-blown, 
high-octane pessimists whose explanatory style continually undermines 
their achievement and health. Some among them may be depressives, but 
others, perhaps even the majority, may for all their somber caution at their 
desks otherwise be cheery and sanguine. Some are merely prudent and 
measured people, who have nurtured their pessimistic side in the service 
of their careers. John Creedon was never suggesting that his executive 
corps was full of severe pessimists incapacitated by helplessness. But the 
difference is only in degree. These executives would, as a group, test out 
as pessimists, and their outlook would be basically, though not drastically, 

These mild pessimists—call them professional pessimists—seem to make 
good use of pessimistic accuracy (it’s their stock-in-trade) without suffering 
unbearably from the costs of pessimism: the bouts of depression and the 
lack of initiative we have seen so far in this book, and the ill health and 
failure to attain high office that we will see in the later chapters. 

So the successful corporation has its optimists, dreamers, salesmen, and 
creators. But the corporation is a form of modern life that also needs its 
pessimists, the realists whose job is to counsel caution. I want to underline, 
however, the fact that at the head of the corporation must be a CEO, sage 
enough and flexible enough to balance the optimistic vision of the planners 
against the jeremiads of the CPAs. Creedon was just such a CEO, and his 
complaint to me about his corporate pessimists came from his daily task 
of reconciling the polarities. 

The Balance Sheet: 

Optimism vs. Pessimism 

Perhaps a successful life, like a successful company, needs both optimism 
and at least occasional pessimism, and for the same reason a corporation 
does. Perhaps a successful life also needs a CEO who has flexible optimism 
at his command. 

Success at Work 


I have just made the case for pessimism. It heightens our sense of reality 
and endows us with accuracy, particularly if we live in a world filled with 
unexpected and frequent disasters. Let me now review the case against 
pessimism (the other side of the case for optimism) so that we can compare 
its costs to its benefits. 

• Pessimism promotes depression. 

• Pessimism produces inertia rather than activity in the face of 


• Pessimism feels bad subjectively—blue, down, worried, anxious. 

• Pessimism is self-fulfilling. Pessimists don’t persist in the face of 

challenges, and therefore fail more frequently—even when success 
is attainable. 

• Pessimism is associated with poor physical health (see chapter ten). 

• Pessimists are defeated when they try for high office (see chapter 


• Even when pessimists are right and things turn out badly, they still 

feel worse. Their explanatory style now converts the predicted 
setback into a disaster, a disaster into a catastrophe. 

The best thing one can say about a pessimist is that his fears were 

The balance sheet seems to come out heavily on the side of optimism, 
but there are times and places where we need our pessimism. Chapter 
twelve presents guidelines on who should not use optimism and in what 
circumstances pessimism is best deployed. 

All of us—extreme pessimists and extreme optimists alike—experience 
both states. Explanatory style probably has built-in flux. Circadian cycles 
ensure occasional mild depression. Depression has a rhythm through the 
day and, at least among some women, through the month. Typically we 
are more depressed when we wake up, and as the day goes on we become 
more optimistic. But superimposed on this is our BRAC, our Basic Rest 
and Activity Cycle. As noted previously, it hits its lows at roughly four in 
the afternoon and again at four in the morning. Its highs occur in late 
morning and early evening, although the exact timing varies from person 
to person. 

During the highs, we are more optimistic than usual. We formulate 
adventurous plans: our next romantic conquest, the new sports car. During 
the lows, we are more inclined to depression and pessimism than usual. 
We see the stark realities that our plans entail: She’d never be interested 
in someone who is divorced and has three kids. A new Jaguar costs more 



than I make in a year. If you are an optimist and want to see this graphically, 
just remember the last time you woke up at four in the morning and couldn’t 
get back to sleep. Worries that you easily dismiss during the day now 
overwhelm you: The argument with your spouse means divorce, the frown 
from the boss means you’ll be fired. 

During these daily bouts of pessimism we can see its constructive role 
in our lives. In these mild forms, pessimism serves the purpose of pulling 
us back a bit from the risky exaggerations of our optimism, making us 
think twice, keeping us from making rash, foolhardy gestures. The opti¬ 
mistic moments of our lives contain the great plans, the dreams, and the 
hopes. Reality is benignly distorted to give the dreams room to flourish. 
Without these times we would never accomplish anything difficult and 
intimidating, we would never even attempt the just barely possible. Mount 
Everest would remain unsealed, the four-minute mile unrun; the jet plane 
and the computer would be blueprints sitting in some financial vice- 
president’s wastebasket. 

The genius of evolution lies in the dynamic tension between optimism 
and pessimism continually correcting each other. As we rise and fall daily 
with the circadian cycle, that tension permits us both to venture and to 
retrench—without danger, for as we move toward an extreme, the tension 
pulls us back. In a sense it is this perpetual fluctuation that permits human 
beings to accomplish so much. 

Evolution, however, has also given us our ancestors’ Pleistocene brain. 
Through it come the naggings of pessimism: Success is fleeting; danger 
lurks around the next corner; tragedy awaits us; optimism is hubris. But 
the brain that accurately mirrored the grim realities of the ice ages now 
lags behind the less grim realities of modern life. Agriculture, and then 
the leap of industrial technology, put human beings in developed countries 
much less at the mercy of the next harsh winter. No longer do two out of 
three of our children die before they reach their fifth birthday. No longer 
is it reasonable for a woman to expect her o«'n death during childbirth. 
No longer does massive starvation follow prolonged cold or drought. Cer¬ 
tainly modern life has its own abundant menaces and tragedies: crime, 
AIDS, divorce, the threat of nuclear war, the undermining of the ecosys¬ 
tem. But it is only the most willfully negative manipulation of the statistics 
that has modern life in the West even approach the level of disaster that 
shaped the ice-age brain. And so we do well to recognize the insistent 
voice of pessimism for the vestige it is. 

It does not follow that we should become lotus-eaters. It does follow 
that we are entitled to more optimism than we may naturally feel. Do we 
have a choice about using optimism? Can we learn the skills of optimism, 

Success at Work 


superimpose them on the Pleistocene brain to enjoy their benefits, but still 
retain pessimism when we need it? 

I believe we can, for evolution has allowed one thing more. Like the 
successful company, we each have in us an executive who balances the 
counsels of daring against the counsels of doom. When optimism prompts 
us to chance it and pessimism bids us to cower, a part of us heeds both. 
This executive is sapience. It is this entity to whom is addressed the most 
basic point of this book: By understanding the single virtue of pessimism 
along with its pervasive, crippling consequences, we can learn to resist 
pessimism's constant callings, as deep-seated in brain or in habit as they 
may be. We can learn to choose optimism for the most part, but also to 
heed pessimism when it is warranted. 

How to learn the skills of optimism and the guidelines for deploying 
such flexible optimism are the topics of “Changing: From Pessimism to 
Optimism,” the concluding section of this book. 


Children and Parents: 

The Origins of Optimism 

Explanatory style has a sweeping effect on the lives of adults. It 
can produce depression in response to everyday setbacks, or produce re¬ 
silience even in the face of tragedy. It can numb a person to the pleasures 
of life, or allow him to live fully. It can prevent him from achieving his 
goals, or help him exceed them. As we will see, a person’s explanatory 
style influences the way other people perceive him, disposing them to work 
against him or with him. And it affects physical health. 

Explanatory style develops in childhood. The optimism or pessimism 
developed then is fundamental. New setbacks and victories are Altered 
through it, and it becomes an entrenched habit of thinking. In this chapter 
we will ask what explanatory style’s source is, what its consequences are 
for children, and how it can be changed. 

Test Your Child’s Optimism 

If your child is over seven, he has probably developed an explanatory style, 
which is in the process of crystallizing. You can measure your child’s ex¬ 
planatory style with a test called the Children’s Attributional Style Ques¬ 
tionnaire, or CASQ, which has been taken by thousands of children. The 
CASQ is very much like the test you took in chapter three. It takes a child 

Children and Parents: The Origins of Optimism 


between the ages of eight and thirteen about twenty minutes to finish. If 
your child is older, give him the test from chapter three. For children under 
eight, there is no wholly reliable paper-and-pencil test, but there is another 
way of measuring their explanatory style, which I’ll tell you about later in 
this chapter. 

To give your child the test, set aside twenty minutes, sit down at a table 
with him, and say something like: 

“Different kids think in different ways. I’ve been reading a book 
about this, and I’ve been wondering how you think about some things 
that might happen to you. 

“Look at this. It’s really interesting. It asks you a bunch of questions 
about what you think. Each question is like a little story, and for each 
story, there are two ways you might react. You’re supposed to choose 
one way or the other, the one that’s closest to the way you’d really 
feel if that particular thing happened to you. 

“So here’s a pencil. I want you to give it a try. Imagine that each 
of these little stories happened to you, even if they never have. And 
then check either the ‘A’ answer or the ‘B’ answer—the one that best 
describes the way you would feel. But the great thing about this test 
is that there are no wrong answers! Isn’t that terrific? Now, here, let’s 
take a look at number one.” 

Once you get him going, your child can probably take it without any 
assistance. But for younger children who are not skilled readers, you should 
read each item aloud at the same time the child is reading it to himself. 

Children’s Attributional Style Questionnaire 

1. You get an A on a test. 


A .lam smart. 1 

B .lam good in the subject that the test was in. 0 

2. You play a game with some friends and you win. 


A. The people that / played with did not play the game well. 0 

B. I play that game well. 1 


3. You spend a night at a friend’s house and you have a good 

A. My friend was in a friendly mood that night. 

B. Everyone in my friend*s family was in a friendly 
mood that night. 

4. You go on a vacation with a group of people and you have 

A. I was in a good mood. 

B. The people / was with were in good moods. 

5. All of your friends catch a cold except you. 

A. I have been healthy lately. 

B. I am a healthy person. 

6. Your pet gets run over by a car. 

A. I don*t take good care of my pets. 

B. Drivers are not cautious enough. 

7. Some kids you know say that they don’t like you. 

A. Once in a while people are mean to me. 

B. Once in a while I am mean to other people. 

8. You get very good grades. 

A. Schoolwork is simple. 

B. I am a hard worker. 

9. You meet a friend and your friend tells you that you look 


A. My friend felt like praising the way people looked 
that day. 

B. Usually my friend praises the way people look. 


Children and Parents: The Origins of Optimism 


10. A good friend tells you that he hates you. 


A. My friend was in a bad mood that day. o 

B. I wasn’t nice to my friend that day. I 

11. You tell a joke and no one laughs. 


A. / don’t tell jokes well. i 

B. The joke is so well known that it is no longer funny. o 

12. Your teacher gives a lesson and you don’t understand it. 


A. I didn’t pay attention to anything that day. i 

B. I didn’t pay attention when my teacher was talking. o 

13. You fail a test. 


A. My teacher makes hard tests. 1 

B. The past few weeks , my teacher has made hard tests. 0 

14. You gain a lot of weight and start to look fat. 


A. The food I have to eat is fattening. 0 

B. I like fattening foods. 1 

15. A person steals money from you. 


A. That person is dishonest. 0 

B. People are dishonest. 1 

16. Your parents praise something you make. 


A. Iam good at making some things. 1 

B. My parents like some things I make. 0 

17. You play a game and you win money. 


A. I am a lucky person. 1 

B. I am lucky when I play games. 0 



18. You almost drown when swimming in a river. 


A. I am not a very cautious person. I 

B. Some days I am not a cautious person. o 

19. You are invited to a lot of parties. 


A. A lot of people have been acting friendly toward me 

lately. 0 

B. I have been acting friendly toward a lot of people lately. 1 

20. A grown-up yells at you. 


A. That person yelled at the first person he saw. 0 

B. That person yelled at a lot of people he saw that day. I 

21. You do a project with a group of kids and it turns out 


A. I don't work well with the people in the group. 0 

B. I never work well with a group. 1 

22. You make a new friend. 


A. I am a nice person. 1 

B. The people that I meet are nice. 0 

23. You have been getting along well with your family. 


A. I am easy to get along with when I am with my family. 1 

B. Once in a while I am easy to get along with when I 

am with my family. 0 

24. You try to sell candy, but no one will buy any. 


A. Lately a lot of children are selling things , so people 

don't want to buy anything else from children. 0 

B. People don't like to buy things from children. 1 

Children and Parents: The Origins of Optimism 


25. You play a game and you win. 


A. Sometimes I try as hard as I can at games. 0 

B. Sometimes I try as hard as I can. 1 

26. You get a bad grade in school. 


A. I am stupid. 1 

B. Teachers are unfair graders. 0 

27. You walk into a door and you get a bloody nose. 


A. I wasn't looking where I was going. 0 

B. I have been careless lately. 1 

28. You miss the ball and your team loses the game. 


A. I didn't try hard while playing ball that day. 0 

B. I usually don't try hard when I am playing ball. 1 

29. You twist your ankle in gym class. 


A. The past few weeks t the sports we played in gym 

class have been dangerous. 0 

B. The past few weeks I have been clumsy in gym class. 1 

30. Your parents take you to the beach and you have a good 


A. Everything at the beach was nice that day. 1 

B. The weather at the beach was nice that day. 0 

31. You take a train which arrives so late that you miss a 


A. The past few days there have been problems with 

the train being on time. 0 

B. The trains are almost never on time. 1 



32. Your mother makes your favorite dinner for you. 


A. There are a few things that my mother does to 

please me. 0 

B. My mother likes to please me. 1 

33. A team that you are on loses a game. 


A. The team members don't play well together. 1 

B. That day the team members didn't play well together. 0 

34. You finish your homework quickly. 


A. Lately I have been doing everything quickly. 1 

B. Lately / have been doing schoolwork quickly. 0 

35. Your teacher asks you a question and you give the wrong 


A. I get nervous when I have to answer questions. 1 

B. That day / got nervous when I had to answer questions. 0 

36. You get on the wrong bus and you get lost. 


A. That day I wasn't paying attention to what was going on. 0 

B. / usually don't pay attention to what's going on. 1 

37. You go to an amusement park and you have a good time. 


A. / usually enjoy myself at amusement parks. 0 

B. / usually enjoy myself. 1 

38. An older kid slaps you in the face. 


A. I teased his younger brother. I 

B. His younger brother told him I had teased him. 0 

39. You get all the toys you want on your birthday. 


A. People always guess what toys to buy me for my 

birthday. 1 

B. This birthday people guessed right as to what toys / 

wanted. 0 

Children and Parents: The Origins of Optimism 


40. You take a vacation in the country and you have a won¬ 
derful time. 


A. The country is a beautiful place to be. 1 

B. The time of the year that we went was beautiful. 0 

41. Your neighbors ask you over for dinner. 


A. Sometimes people are in kind moods. 0 

B. People are kind. 1 

42. You have a substitute teacher and she likes you. 


A. I was well behaved during class that day. 0 

B .lam almost always well behaved during class. 1 

43. You make your friends happy. 


A. I am a fun person to be with. 1 

B. Sometimes I am a fun person to be with. 0 

44. You get a free ice-cream cone. 


A. / was friendly to the ice-cream man that day. 1 

B. The ice-cream man was feeling friendly that day. 0 

45. At your friend’s party the magician asks you to help him 


A. It was just luck that I got picked. 0 

B. I looked really interested in what was going on. 1 

46. You try to convince a kid to go to the movies with you, 
but he won’t go. 


A. That day he did not feel like doing anything. 1 

B. That day he did not feel like going to the movies. 0 



47. Your parents get a divorce. 


A. It is hard for people to get along well when they are 

married. 1 

B. It is hard for my parents to get along well when they 

are married. 0 

48. You have been trying to get into a club and you don’t get 


A. I don't get along well with other people. 1 

B. I don't get along well with the people in the club. 0 


PmB_ PmG. 

PvB_ PvG. 


PsB_ PsG. 

Total B_ Total G. 


You can score the test now. You can share your child’s scores with him 
if you like. If you do tell him what his scores are, also explain what they 

Start with the PmB (Permanent Bad) score. Total the numbers in the 
right-hand margin that follow the answers your child chose to questions 
13, 18, 24, 28, 31,33, 35, and 36. Enter that total in the scoring key above, 
next to “PmB.” 

Then add the PmG scores—questions 5, 9, 23, 39, 40, 41, 42, and 43— 
and enter the total in the scoring key. 

Then do the pervasiveness scores and note them in the key. The PvB 
questions are 12, 15, 20, 21, 27, 46, 47, and 48. The PvG questions are 1, 
3, 17, 25, 30, 32, 34, and 37. 

Total the PmB and PvB scores to get the hope (HoB) score. Record it. 

Children and Parents: The Origins of Optimism 


Now score personalization. The PsB questions are 6, 7, 10, 11, 14, 26, 
29, and 38. 

The PsG questions are 2, 4, 8, 16, 19, 22, 44, and 45. 

Compute the total scores for bad events (PmB + PvB + PsB) and 
record the Total B; then total the scores for good events (PmG + PvG 
+ PsG) and record it. 

Finally, compute the overall scale score, G-B, by subtracting the Total 
B from the Total G. Write it on the bottom line of the key. 

Here’s what your child’s scores mean and how your child compares to 
the thousands of children who have taken this test. 

First, girls and boys score differently. Girls, at least up to puberty, are 
noticeably more optimistic than boys. The average nine-to-twelve-year-old 
girl has a G - B score of 7.0. The average nine-to-twelve-year-old boy has 
a score of 5.0. If your girl scores less than 4.5, she is somewhat pessimistic. 
If she scores less than 2, she is very pessimistic and at risk for depression. 
If your boy scores less than 2.5, he is somewhat pessimistic; less than 1, 
he is very pessimistic and at risk for depression. 

As for Total B score, the average nine-to-twelve-year-old girl’s is 7.0, 
and the average boy’s is 8.5. Scores of three points higher than the average 
are very pessimistic. 

The average Total G score for nine-to-twelve-year-old girls and boys is 
13.5. Scores three points lower are very pessimistic. The individual good 
dimensions (PmG, PsG, and PvG) each average about 4.5, with scores of 
3 or below being very pessimistic. The individual bad dimensions (PmB, 
PvB, PsG) average about 2.5 for girls and 2.8 for boys, with scores of 4 
or higher being risk markers for depression. 

Why Children Can’t Be Hopeless 

You may have been surprised about the norms and what the scores 
mean, particularly compared to your own scores. On the whole, prepu- 
bescent children are extremely optimistic, with a capacity for hope and an 
immunity to hopelessness they will never again possess after puberty, when 
they lose much of their optimism. 

When my son, David, was five, my wife and I divorced. Explaining it 
to him in euphemisms did not seem to work. He kept asking me, every 
weekend, if Kerry and I would get married again. The time had come for 
straight talk. I told him at length that people fall out of love, and that it 
can be final. Trying to make the point, I asked him: “Did you ever have 



a friend that you used to like a lot and then stopped liking so much?” 

“Yes,” he agreed reluctantly, searching his memory. 

“Well, that’s the way your mother and I feel about each other. We don’t 
love each other anymore, and we never will again. We’ll never get married 
to each other again.” 

He looked up at me, nodding agreement, and then, having the last word, 
concluded the discussion: “You might!” 

Children’s explanatory style is enormously lopsided, much more so than 
adults’. Good events are going to last forever, are going to help in all ways, 
and are the child’s doing. Bad events just happen along, melt away quickly, 
and are someone else’s fault. So lopsided is the average child that his scores 
look on average like those of a successful insurance-sales agent for Met¬ 
ropolitan Life. A depressed child’s lopsided scores look like those of the 
average nondepressed adult’s. No one seems to have the capacity for hope 
that a young child does, and it is just this fact that makes severe depression 
in a young child stand out so tragically. 

Children do get depressed, and they get depressed as frequently and as 
profoundly as adults do, but their depression differs from adolescents’ and 
from adults’ in one very striking way. They do not become hopeless, and 
they do not commit suicide. There are between 20,000 and 50,000 suicides 
among adult Americans each year, almost all of which follow depression. 
One particular component of depression, hopelessness, is the most accurate 
predictor of suicide. Potential suicides strongly believe that their present 
misery is going to last forever and pervade all that they do, and that only 
death will end their suffering. Childhood suicide is tragic and on the rise 
now, but the approximately two hundred such suicides a year are hardly 
a major epidemiological problem. Children below the age of seven never 
commit suicide, even though there are well-documented homicides com¬ 
mitted by children as young as five. Children of this age can understand 
death, they can understand its finality, and they can intend to kill someone; 
but what they cannot do is sustain a state of hopelessness for very long. 

Evolution, I believe, has ensured this. The child carries the seed of the 
future, and nature’s primary interest in children is that they reach puberty 
safely and produce the next generation of children. Nature has buffered 
our children not only physically—prepubescent children have the lowest 
death rate from all causes—but psychologically as well, by endowing them 
with hope, abundant and irrational. 

But for all this buffering against hopelessness, some children are much 
more predisposed to pessimism and depression than others. The CASQ is 
a good indicator of who is vulnerable and who is protected. Children who 
score in the optimistic half—boys above 5.5 and girls above 7.5—will tend 

Children and Parents: The Origins of Optimism 


to become optimistic teenagers and adults. They will, on average, have 
less depression, achieve more, and be healthier over their lives than chil¬ 
dren who score below these averages. 

Explanatory style sets in early. We see it in quite crystallized form in 
children as young as eight. If your child already has an optimistic or pes¬ 
simistic stance about the world by the third grade, and if it is going to be 
so important to his future, his health and success, you may wonder where 
it came from and what you can do to change it. 

There are three major hypotheses about the origins of explanatory style. 
The first concerns the child’s mother. 

(1) Mother’s Explanatory Style: 

Listen in as Sylvia reacts to a bad event in the presence of her eight- 
year-old daughter Marjorie. The scene begins as they get into a car at a 
shopping-center parking lot. As you listen, try to discern Sylvia’s explan¬ 
atory style. 

Marjorie: Mommy, there’s a dent on my side of the car. 

Sylvia: Damn, Bob will kill me! 

Marjorie: Daddy told you to always park his new car far away from 
the other cars. 

Sylvia: Damn, things like this always happen to me. I’m so lazy, I just 
want to carry groceries a few feet, not a hundred yards. I’m so 

Sylvia is saying some pretty disheartening things about herself, and Mar¬ 
jorie is listening very carefully. It’s not only the content that’s disheartening 
but the form. In content, Marjorie hears that Sylvia is in big trouble, and 
that she’s stupid, lazy, and chronically unlucky. Bad enough. But the form 
of what Sylvia says is even worse. 

Marjorie can hear that it’s a bad event that is being explained. Sylvia 
gives Marjorie (quite inadvertently) four explanations: 

1. “Things like this always happen to me. ” That explanation is permanent: 
Sylvia uses always. Pervasive, too: “Things like this,” not “car dents”; 
Sylvia doesn’t qualify the misfortune or set any boundaries for the troubles 
that always happen to her. And personal: They “happen to me,” not to 
everyone. Sylvia singles herself out as a victim. 

2. “Tm so lazy. ” Laziness, as Sylvia has cast it, is a permanent character 
trait. (Contrast Sylvia’s explanation with this one: “I was feeling lazy.”) 



Laziness hurts in many circumstances, and thus is pervasive. And Sylvia 
has personalized it. 

3. "/ want to carry groceries a few feet” —personal, permanent (not “I 
wanted”), but not particularly pervasive since it’s just about physical labor. 

4. ‘Tm so stupid” —permanent, pervasive, personal. 

You weren’t the only one who did an analysis of what Sylvia was saying. 
Marjorie did, too. Marjorie has heard her mother explain a crisis by giving 
four highly pessimistic causes. She has heard her mother’s view that bad 
events are permanent, pervasive, and her own fault. Marjorie is learning 
that this is the way the world is. 

Every day Marjorie hears her mother make permanent, pervasive, and 
personal analyses of the untoward events that happen around the house. 
Marjorie is in the process of learning from the most influential person in 
her life that bad events are going to last, are going to hurt everything, and 
are appropriately blamed on the person to whom they happen. Marjorie 
is forming a theory of the world in which bad events have permanent, 
pervasive, and personal causes. 

Children’s antennae are constantly tuned to the way their parents, par¬ 
ticularly their mothers, talk about causes of emotionally loaded events. It 
is no accident that “Why?” is one of the first and most repeated questions 
that young children ask. Getting explanations for the world around them, 
particularly the social world, is the prime intellectual task of growing 
up. Once the parents get impatient and stop answering the never-ending 
why questions, children get their answers in other ways. Mostly they 
listen closely when you spontaneously explain why things happen—which 
you do, on average, about once a minute during speech. Your children 
hang on every word of the explanations you give, particularly when some¬ 
thing goes wrong. Not only do they listen for the particulars of what you 
say, but they listen keenly to its formal properties: whether the cause you 
cite is permanent or temporary, specific or pervasive, your fault or some¬ 
one else’s. 

The way your mother talked about the world to you when you were a 
child had a marked influence on your explanatory style. We found out 
about this by giving explanatory-style questionnaires to one hundred chil¬ 
dren and their parents. The mother’s level of optimism and the child’s 
level were very similar. This was true of both sons and daughters. We were 
surprised to find that neither the children’s style nor the mother’s style 
bore any resemblance to the father’s style. This tells us that young children 
listen to what their primary caretaker (usually their mother) says about 
causes, and they tend to make this style their own. If the child has an 
optimistic mother, this is great, but it can be a disaster for the child if the 
child has a pessimistic mother. 

Children and Parents: The Origins of Optimism 


These findings raise a question: Is explanatory style genetic? Can we 
inherit it from our parents, as we seem to inherit a disconcertingly large 
portion of our intelligence, our politics, and our religious outlook? (Studies 
of identical twins reared separately show that they both grow up to have 
uncannily similar political outlooks, belief in God or lack of it, and IQs.) 
Unlike these psychological traits, the pattern of explanatory style that we 
find in families suggests that it is not heritable: The mother’s is similar to 
both the sons’ and the daughters’; the father’s is similar to no one’s. This 
is a pattern of results that does not fit any ordinary genetic model. 

To be sure, we are now trying to ask the genetic question less indirectly. 
We will measure the optimism of both the biological and the adoptive 
parents of children who were adopted when very young. If the children’s 
level of optimism is similar to that of the adoptive parents and dissimilar 
to that of the biological parents, this will confirm our view that the origins 
of optimism are learned. If the children’s level of optimism resembles the 
level of the biological parents, whom the children have never met, this 
would show that optimism can be at least partly inherited. 

(2) Adult Criticism: Teachers and Parents 

When YOURCHiLDRENdo something wrong, what do you say to them? 
What do their teachers say to them? As noted, children listen carefully 
not just to content but to form, not just to what adults say to them but 
how adults say it. This is particularly true of criticisms. Children believe 
the criticisms they get, and use them to form their explanatory style. 

Let’s look for a minute into a typical third-grade classroom, as Carol 
Dweck, one of the world’s leading researchers into emotional development, 
has done. Carol’s work has illuminated how optimism develops. It may 
also give us clues about what happens during the childhood of women that 
makes them far more susceptible to depression than men are. 

Once the class gets used to your presence and settles down, the first 
thing you notice is a striking difference between the demeanor of the girls 
and that of the boys. The girls are for the most part a pleasure for the 
teacher: They sit quietly, even fold their hands, and they appear to listen 
attentively. When they act up, they whisper and giggle, but basically they 
obey the rules. The boys are a pain. They fidget even when trying to sit 
still—which they don’t try all that often. They don’t appear to listen, they 
don’t obey the rules as scrupulously as the girls do. When they act up— 
which is a lot of the time—they shout and run around. 

The class buckles down and takes a test on fractions. What does the 
teacher say to the children who do badly on the test? What kind of criticisms 



do boys and girls hear from their teachers in the third grade when they 

The boys who fail are typically told: “You weren’t paying attention,” 
“You didn’t try hard enough,” “You were being rowdy when I was teaching 
fractions.” What kinds of explanations are not paying attention, little effort, 
and rowdiness? They are temporary and specific, not pervasive. Temporary 
because you can change how much effort you put out, and you can pay 
attention if you want, and you can stop being rowdy. Boys hear temporary 
and specific causes invoked to explain why their school performance wasn’t 
up to par. 

The girls, Dweck’s studies reveal, routinely hear quite a different sort 
of condemnation. Since they aren’t rowdy and they look as if they are 
paying attention, they can’t be criticized on those grounds. For the teacher 
correcting them, this leaves “You’re not very good at arithmetic,” “You 
always hand in sloppy papers,” “You never check your work.” Most of 
the temporary causes, such as inattention, not trying, and misbehaving, 
are ruled out, so girls are barraged with permanent and pervasive criticisms 
of their failure. What do they distill out of their third-grade experience? 

Carol Dweck found out by taking fourth-grade girls and giving them 
impossible problems to solve. Then she looked at how they explained their 

They all got scrambled words to find anagrams for—“ZOLT,” “IEOF,” 
“MAPE,” and so on—but their effort was in vain, because it was impossible 
to rearrange the letters to form a real word. All the children tried hard, 
but before they could exhaust the possible combinations, they were told, 
“Time’s up.” 

“Why didn’t you solve those?” the experimenter asked. 

The girls said things like “I’m not very good at word games” and “I 
guess I’m not very bright.” 

The boys, when they were given the same test, said things like “I wasn’t 
paying attention”; and “I didn’t try very hard”; “Who cares about your 
lousy puzzles anyway?” 

In this test, the girls gave permanent and pervasive explanations for their 
failures; the boys, on the other hand, gave much more hopeful explana¬ 
tions—temporary, specific, and changeable. What we see here is the impact 
of the second influence on your child’s explanatory style: the criticisms that 
adults make when the child fails. Again, the child listens attentively, and 
if what he hears is permanent and pervasive—“You’re stupid”; “You’re 
no good”—this finds its way into his theory of himself. If what he hears is 
temporary and specific—“You didn’t try hard enough”; “These puzzles 
are for sixth-graders”—he sees problems as solvable and local. 

Children and Parents: The Origins of Optimism 


(3) Children’s Life Crises 

In Heidelberg in 1981, I heard Glen Elder, the world’s leading soci¬ 
ologist of the family, give a talk to a group of researchers interested in 
how children grow up under tremendous adversity. He told us about a 
fascinating study he had been working on his whole adult life. Two gen¬ 
erations ago, he said, before the Great Depression, a group of visionary 
scientists, Glen’s predecessors, launched a study about growing up that 
has gone on for almost sixty years. A group of children from two California 
cities, Berkeley and Oakland, were interviewed and tested thoroughly for 
their psychological strengths and weaknesses. These test subjects are now 
in their seventies and eighties. They have continued to cooperate with this 
landmark study of life-span development. Not only that but their children, 
and now their grandchildren, have participated as well. 

Glen then talked about who survived the Great Depression intact and 
who never recovered. He told the spellbound group that middle-class girls 
whose families lost all their money recovered psychologically by early mid¬ 
dle age and then aged well both physically and psychologically. Lower- 
class girls who were equally deprived during the 1930s never recovered. 
They fell apart in late middle age, and their old age was tragic, both 
physically and psychologically. 

Glen speculated about the cause. 

“I believe that the women who aged well,” he said, “learned during 
their childhood in the Great Depression that adversity would be overcome. 
After all, most of their families recovered economically during the late 
1930s and early 1940s. That recovery taught them optimism, and this crisis 
and its resolution shaped their explanatory style for bad events, making it 
temporary, specific, and external. This means that in old age, when their 
best friend died, they thought, ‘I will find friendship elsewhere.’ This op¬ 
timistic outlook . . . helped their health and their aging. 

“Contrast the girls from lower-class families. By and large, their families 
did not recover after the Great Depression. They were poor before it, 
during it, and after it. They learned pessimism. They learned that when 
troubles strike, hard times remain forever. Their explanatory style became 
hopeless. Much later, when their best friend died, they thought, ‘I’ll never 
find friendship again.’ This pessimism, learned in childhood from the reality 
of their situation, got imposed on every new crisis, and undermined their 
health, their achievement, and their sense of well-being. 

“These are wild speculations, though,” Glen said in closing. “Nobody 
had thought of the notion of explanatory style fifty years ago, so it wasn’t 



measured. It’s too bad we don’t have a time machine, so we could go back 
to 1930 and find out if my speculations are right.” 

I couldn’t sleep that night. “It’s too bad we don’t have a time machine” 
kept running through my head. At five in the morning, I was pounding on 
Glen’s door. 

“Wake up, Glen, we have to talk. I do have a time machine!” 

Glen dragged himself out of bed and we went for a walk. 

“Last year,” I said to Glen, “I got a letter from a remarkable young 
social psychologist named Chris Peterson. It read like an academic fortune 
cookie. 'Help,’ it said, 'I am trapped at a small college teaching eight 
courses a year. Have creative ideas, will travel.’ I invited him to spend a 
couple of years working with me at Penn, and he did, indeed, have creative 

The most creative idea Chris had concerned how to determine the ex¬ 
planatory style of people who wouldn’t take explanatory-style question¬ 
naires—people like sports heroes, presidents, and movie stars. Chris read 
the sports pages indefatigably, and every time he found a causal state¬ 
ment made by a football player, he treated it as if it was an item on an 
explanatory-style questionnaire filled out by the player. So, if a kicker said 
that he missed the field goal because “The wind was against me,” Chris 
rated that quote for its permanent, pervasive, and personal qualities, on 
a i-to-7 scale. “The wind was against me” would get only a / for permanent, 
since nothing is less permanent than wind; about a 1 for pervasive, since 
the wind being against you only hurts kicking and not your love life; and 
a / for personal, since the wind is not the kicker’s fault. “The wind was 
against me” is a very optimistic explanation of a bad event. 

Chris then averaged the ratings over all the causal statements the kicker 
made and got the kicker’s explanatory style, without using a questionnaire. 
Next we showed that such a profile roughly matches what would have 
happened if the questionnaire had been taken by the kicker. We called 
this the CAVE—for content analysis of verbatim explanations—technique. 

“Glen,” I went on, “the CAVE technique is the time machine. We can 
use it not only on contemporary people who won’t take questionnaires, 
but on people who can't take questionnaires, like the dead. 

“This brings me to why I woke you up. Did your predecessors save the 
original interviews with the Berkeley-Oakland children from the 1930s?” 

Glen thought for a bit. “That was before the tape recorder was in wide 
use, but I seem to recall that the interviewers took shorthand notes. I can 
check it when I get back to my archives.” 

“If we still have authentic quotes,” I said, “we can use the CAVE 
technique on them. Every time one of the children made a causal statement, 

Children and Parents: The Origins of Optimism 


we can treat it as an item from an explanatory style questionnaire, and we 
can have raters—who are blind to the source of the quotes—score them 
for optimism. At the end of the process, we’d know what each child’s 
explanatory style was fifty years ago. We can travel back in time and test 
your speculations.” 

When he got back to the Berkeley archives, Glen checked. There did 
indeed exist verbatim notes from the early interviews, and complete in¬ 
terviews done at various points later in life, as the young girls became 
mothers and then grandmothers. We used these notes and interviews to 
create explanatory-style profiles for these women. We extracted every 
causal statement from the interviews, gave each statement to raters who 
did not know its source, and had them rate it on the i-to-7 scale for 
pervasiveness, permanence, and personalization. 

Glen’s speculation was largely correct. The middle-class women, who 
aged well, tended to be optimists. The lower-class women, who aged badly, 
tended to be pessimists. 

This first use of the time machine accomplished three things. 

First, the time machine provided us with an extremely powerful tool. 
We could now use this tool to ask about the optimism of people who would 
not take questionnaires, as long as we had verbatim quotes from them. 
We could “CAVE” an enormous range of material for explanatory style: 
press conferences, diaries, therapy transcripts, letters home from the bat- 
tlefront, wills. We could find out the explanatory style of children too 
young to take the CASQ by listening to them talk, extracting their causal 
statements and rating them as if they were questionnaire items. We might 
be able to find out how optimistic long-dead presidents of the United States 
had been, whether the level of optimism has increased or decreased over 
historical time in America, and whether some cultures and religions are 
more pessimistic than others. 

Second, the time machine gave us additional evidence that we learn our 
explanatory style from our mothers. In 1970 the Berkeley-Oakland chil¬ 
dren, now grandmothers, were interviewed. In addition their children, now 
mothers themselves, were also interviewed. We “CAVEd” these interviews 
and found the same results that our questionnaire studies showed. There 
was marked resemblance between the level of pessimism of the mothers 
and their daughters. As noted above, this is one of the ways we learn 
optimism, by listening to our mothers explain the everyday events that 
happen to them. 

Third, the time machine provided our first evidence that the reality of 
the crises we go through as children shapes our optimism: Girls who went 
through economic crises that were resolved came to look at bad events as 



temporary and changeable. But children who experienced the privations 
of the Great Depression and remained poor afterward came to look at bad 
events as fixed and immutable. So our major childhood crises may give us 
a pattern, like a cookie cutter, with which, for the rest of our lives, we 
produce explanations for new crises. 

In addition to the findings of the work with Glen Elder, there is another 
line of evidence for the proposition that children distill their explanatory 
style out of major crises in their lives. This evidence has been painstakingly 
gathered by British professor George Brown. When I first met him, George 
had spent the last ten years walking around the most poverty-stricken areas 
of South London, interviewing housewives at great length. He had inter¬ 
viewed more than four hundred, looking for the key to the prevention of 
depression. The sheer amount of severe depression he uncovered was 
shocking—over 20 percent of the housewives were depressed, half of those 
psychotically so. What, he was determined to find out, separated those 
women who got severely depressed in that trying environment from those 
who were invulnerable? 

He had isolated three protective factors. If any single one of the three 
was present, depression would not occur, even in the face of severe loss 
and privation. The first protective factor was an intimate relationship with 
a spouse or a lover. Such women could fight depression off well. The second 
was a job outside the home. The third was not having three or more children 
under the age of fourteen at home to take care of. 

In addition to invulnerability factors, Brown had isolated two major risk 
factors for depression: recent loss (husband dying, son emigrating) and, 
more important, death of their own mothers before the women had reached 
their teens. 

“If your mother dies when you are young,” George explained, “you 
think about later losses in the most hopeless ways. When your son emigrates 
to New Zealand, you don’t say to yourself that he’s gone off to make his 
fortune and he’ll be coming back. You see him as dead. All adult losses 
seem to you to be deaths.” 

The death of the mother of a young girl is a permanent and pervasive 
loss. So much of what a girl does depends on her mother. This is true 
particularly before puberty—before boys and the daughter’s teenage crowd 
become partial substitutes. If the reality of our first major loss shapes how 
we think about the causes of future losses, George’s findings make sense. 
These unfortunate children learn—just as the lower-class children did dur¬ 
ing the Great Depression—that loss is permanent and pervasive. Their 
mother leaves and never comes back, and their whole life is now impov¬ 
erished. Losses later in life get interpreted this way: He’s dead, he’s never 
coming back, I can’t go on. 

Children and Parents: The Origins of Optimism 


So we have evidence for three kinds of influences on your child’s ex¬ 
planatory style. First, the form of the everyday causal analyses he hears 
from you—especially if you are his mother: If yours are optimistic, his will 
be too. Second, the form of the criticisms he hears when he fails: If they 
are permanent and pervasive, his view of himself will turn toward pessi¬ 
mism. Third, the reality of his early losses and traumas: If they remit, he 
will develop the theory that bad events can be changed and conquered. 
But if they are, in fact, permanent and pervasive, the seeds of hopelessness 
have been deeply planted. 



One cold and windy day in April 1970, when I was still a fairly new 
professor at the University of Pennsylvania, I found myself waiting in line 
to check into Haddon Hall, a slightly decaying, once grand hotel that was 
awaiting the transformation of Atlantic City into the Las Vegas of the East. 
The occasion was yet another annual convention of the Eastern Psycho¬ 
logical Association. Ahead of me was a woman who did not look familiar 
from behind; but when she turned her head I gaped in astonishment. We’d 
been friends all during childhood. 

“Joan Stem,” I exclaimed, “is that you?” 

“Marty Seligman! What are you doing here?” 

“I’m a psychologist,” I said. 

“So am I!” 

We both burst into laughter. Of course—what other order of being 
would we be, checking into this particular convention hotel on this partic¬ 
ular weekend. Joan had gotten a doctorate in psychology from the New 
School for Social Research and I from Penn, and here we were, both of 
us professors. 

We had gone to kindergarten together (“Do you remember Miss Man- 
ville?”) and had grown up three blocks apart (“Is Stittig’s still there?”). 
When I was sent off to upper-crust Albany Academy, she had gone off to 
Saint Agnes, the girls’ equivalent. Life had gotten much better for both 
of us the first day we left Albany and entered college. We discovered that 
the world contained more than a few people like us, and that Debbie 
Reynolds’s looks and Elvis Presley’s music were not universally loved, nor 
the life of the mind universally scorned. Joan was married now; her married 
name was Joan Girgus. 



I asked her what she was working on. 

“Kids,” she said, “what they perceive and think, and how this changes 
as they grow up.” She told me about her fascinating work on visual illusions. 
I told her about learned helplessness. 

“Is your father still alive?” she asked. “How difficult that must have 
been for you,” she said when I told her about his death. She understood 
that kind of loss very well, because her mother had died when Joan was 
a teenager. 

As the meeting continued, we spent more and more time together, trying 
to connect our common past to what was happening now. By the time we 
parted, it had occurred to both of us that someday our research interests— 
hers in childhood and mine in personal control—might merge. 

Joan went on to become Dean of Social Sciences at City College in New 
York and then Dean of the College at Princeton University, and I went 
on to work on explanatory style. Another decade was to pass before our 
interests combined. When they did, they coalesced around the question of 
optimism in the classroom. 

How does a child’s explanatory style affect his performance in the 

Let’s begin by going back to the basic theory. When we fail at something, 
we all become helpless and depressed at least momentarily. We don’t initiate 
voluntary actions as quickly as we would otherwise, or we may not try at 
all. If we do try, we will not persist. As you’ve read, explanatory style is 
the great modulator of learned helplessness. Optimists recover from their 
momentary helplessness immediately. Very soon after failing, they pick 
themselves up, shrug, and start trying again. For them, defeat is a challenge, 
a mere setback on the road to inevitable victory. They see defeat as tem¬ 
porary and specific, not pervasive. 

Pessimists wallow in defeat, which they see as permanent and pervasive. 
They become depressed and stay helpless for very long periods. A setback 
is a defeat. And a defeat in one battle is the loss of the war. They don’t 
begin to try again for weeks or months, and if they try, the slightest new 
setback throws them back into a helpless state. 

The theory clearly predicts that in the classroom and, as we shall see in 
the next chapter, the playing held, success will not necessarily go to the 
most talented. The prize will go to the adequately talented who are also 

Are these predictions true? 



The Classroom 

I recently came across the case of a boy Til call Alan. At age nine he 
was what some psychologists would call an omega child—somewhat shy, 
poorly coordinated, always chosen last in games. He was, however, ex¬ 
ceedingly bright and a gifted young artist. His drawings were the best his 
art teacher had ever seen by a child in elementary school. In Alan’s tenth 
year his parents separated, and he went into a depression. His grades 
plummeted, he seldom spoke, and he lost all his interest in drawing. 

His art teacher refused to give up on him. He got the boy to talk and 
discovered that Alan thought himself stupid, a failute, a sissy . . . and 
somehow to blame for his parents’ separation. Patiently the art teacher 
made Alan see how wrong each of those self-assessments was and led Alan 
to other, more realistic judgments of himself. Alan came to accept that, 
far from stupid, he was an outstanding success. He now knew that coor¬ 
dination came late to some boys, and the fact that sports weren’t easy for 
him made his pluck all the more admirable. The teacher knew Alan’s 
parents and was able to show him that he had no role whatsoever in their 

In effect, he helped Alan change his explanatory style. Within a few 
months Alan was winning awards in school and beginning to make some 
progress in sports as well, with spirit and enthusiasm substituting for skill. 
No longer an omega child, Alan was on the road to becoming an alpha 

When your child is doing poorly at school, it is all too easy for his teachers 
or even for you to conclude falsely that he is untalented or even stupid. 
Your child may be depressed, and his depression may be preventing him 
from trying, from persisting, from taking risks which would let him fulfill 
his potential. Worse, if you conclude that stupidity or lack of talent is the 
cause, your child will realize this and incorporate it into his theory of 
himself. His explanatory style will get even worse, and his poor academic 
performance will become habitual. 

Rate Your Child’s Depression 

How can you tell if your child is depressed? 

Short of a diagnostic interview with a psychologist or psychiatrist, there 



is no conclusive way to tell. But you can get an approximate answer by 
asking your child to take the following test. This test, a modification of 
the depression test you took in chapter four, was devised by Myma Weiss- 
man, Helen Orvaschell, and N. Padian working through the Center for 
Epidemiological Studies of the National Institute of Mental Health. It is 
called the CES-DC (Center for Epidemiological Studies-Depression 
Child) test. Here’s how to introduce it to your child: 

“I’ve been reading a book about how kids feel, and I’ve been won¬ 
dering how you feel lately. Sometimes it’s hard for kids to find the 
words to describe how they feel. Here’s something that gives you 
different ways to say how you feel. You’ll see that there are four 
choices for each sentence. I’d like you to read each sentence and pick 
out the choice that describes best how you have been feeling or acting 
for the past week. After you make a choice, go on to the next group. 
There are no right answers or wrong answers.” 

During the past week 

1. I was bothered by things that don’t usually bother me. 

Not at all _ A little _ Some _ A lot _ 

2. I did not feel like eating; I wasn’t very hungry. 

Not at all _ A little _ Some _ A lot _ 

3. I wasn’t able to feel happy, even when my family or friends tried 
to help me feel better. 

Not at all _ A little _ Some _ A lot _ 

4. I felt that I was not as good as other kids. 

Not at all _ A little _ Some _ A lot _ 

5. I felt like I couldn’t pay attention to what I was doing. 

Not at all _ A little _ Some _ A lot _ 

6. I felt down. 

Not at all _ A little _ Some _ A lot _ 

7. I felt like I was too tired to do things. 

Not at all _ A little _ Some _ A lot _ 

8. I felt like something bad was going to happen. 

Not at all - A little _ Some _ A lot _ 



9. I felt like things I did before didn’t work out. 

Not at all _ A little _ Some _ A lot _ 

10. I felt scared. 

Not at all _ A little _ Some _ A lot _ 

11. I didn’t sleep as well as I usually sleep. 

Not at all _ A little _ Some _ A lot _ 

12. I was unhappy. 

Not at all _ A little _ Some _ A lot _ 

13. I was more quiet than usual. 

Not at all _ A little _ Some _ A lot _ 

14. I felt lonely, like I didn’t have any friends. 

Not at all _ A little _ Some _ A lot _ 

15. I felt like kids I know were not friendly or that they didn’t want 
to be with me. 

Not at all _ A little _ Some _ A lot _ 

16. I didn’t have a good time. 

Not at all _ A little _ Some _ A lot _ 

17. I felt like crying. 

Not at all _ A little _ Some _ A lot _ 

18. I felt sad. 

Not at all _ A little - Some _ A lot _ 

19. I felt people didn’t like me. 

Not at all _ A little _ Some _ A lot _ 

20. It was hard to get started doing things. 

Not at all _ A little _ Some _ A lot _ 

Scoring the test is simple. Each “Not at all” counts as 0, each “A little” 
counts 1, each “Some” counts 2, and each “A lot” counts 3. To score the 
test, total these numbers. If your child checked two boxes for one question, 
give him the higher of the two scores. 

Here’s what the scores mean: If your child scored from 0 to 9, he is 
probably not depressed. If he scored 10 to 15, he is probably mildly de¬ 
pressed. If he scored over 15 he is showing significant levels of depression; 
16 to 24 puts him in the moderately depressed range; and, if he scored 



over 24, he may well be severely depressed. An important caveat is in 
order, however: No pen-and-paper test is the equivalent of a professional 
diagnosis. There are two mistakes a test like this can make, and you should 
watch out for them: First, many children hide their symptoms, particularly 
from their parents. So some children who score below 10 may actually be 
depressed. Second, some children with high scores may have problems 
other than depression, which are producing the high scores. 

If your child scored 10 or more and is doing badly in school, depression 
may be causing the poor schoolwork and not vice versa. We have found 
that among children in the fourth grade, the higher the depression rating 
the worse the child does at solving anagrams and on IQ-test items, and 
the worse his grades. This is true even of children who are very talented 
and very intelligent. 

So, if your child scores over 15 across a two-week span, you should 
arrange for professional help. If your child scores above 9 and also talks 
about committing suicide, you should arrange for professional help. A 
“cognitive-behavioral” child therapist would be ideal. Look in the Yellow 
Pages under “Psychologists,” “Psychiatrists” or “Psychotherapists.” If you 
can’t find one who specializes in cognitive or behavioral therapy for chil¬ 
dren, write a note to me at the University of Pennsylvania or to DART 
(Depression Awareness, Recognition, Treatment Program) at the National 
Institute of Mental Health, 5600 Fishers Lane, Rockville, Maryland 20857. 
Between us we will let you know an appropriate therapist close to where 
you live. 

The Princeton-Penn Longitudinal Study 

Could a pessimistic explanatory style be one root cause of depression 
and poor achievement among children, as it is among adults? In 1981, 
when this question emerged from my investigations, I thought of Joan 
Girgus. Over the years we had stayed in touch and kept abreast of each 
other’s research. Her work with children focused on how perception de¬ 
veloped as the child grows. I also knew that at City College of New York 
she’d been greatly concerned about students’ underachievement. I felt 
she’d be the ideal partner in my inquiry. 

“It comes down to this,” I said when we met. “I don’t think most 
classroom failure is a matter of lack of talent. Our new data show that if 
a school kid is depressed, his classroom performance nosedives.” 

I elaborated a bit and then told Joan about Carol Dweck’s latest findings, 



which pointed to pessimistic explanatory style as the culprit in poor aca¬ 
demic performance. “I just heard through the grapevine,” I said, “about 
Carol’s latest work. She divided grade-school children into ‘helpless’ and 
‘mastery-oriented’ groups, depending on their explanatory style. She then 
gave them a series of failures—unsolvable problems—followed by suc¬ 
cesses—solvable problems. 

“Before the failures, there was no difference at all between the two 
groups. But once they started to fail, an astonishing difference emerged. 
The helpless children’s problem-solving strategies deteriorated down to the 
first-grade level. They began to hate the task and to talk about how good 
they were at baseball or acting in the class play. When the mastery-oriented 
children failed, they stayed at their fourth-grade level in their strategies, 
and while acknowledging that they must be making mistakes, they stayed 
involved. One mastery-oriented child actually rolled up her sleeves and 
said, ‘I love a challenge.’ They all expressed confidence that they would 
soon be back on track, and they kept at it. 

“What’s more,” I went on, “at the end when all the kids were given 
successes, the helpless kids still discounted their success. They predicted 
that in the future, they would solve only fifty percent of the kind of problems 
that they had just solved perfectly. The mastery-oriented kids predicted 
ninety percent. 

“It seems to me,” I concluded, “that the basic problem underlying many 
kids’ depression and much poor schoolwork may be pessimism. When a 
kid believes there is nothing he can do, he stops trying, and his grades 
plunge. I’d like you to join me in investigating this.” 

Joan didn’t respond to my invitation immediately. She asked more ques¬ 
tions, and then she thought for a moment. Finally she said, “I’ve become 
convinced that optimism and the ability to bounce back from setbacks are 
keys to academic success here. But I suspect that the time of life to look 
at is not college and not even high school. It’s in grade school and junior 
high school that lifelong habits of seeing the world crystallize. Before 
puberty, not after. 

“I’ve been thinking about changing my research to something that con¬ 
nects more directly to what I’ve seen as a dean. Finding out about depres¬ 
sion, school achievement, and explanatory style in kids sounds like just 
the right kind of thing.” 

By one of those lucky coincidences, Susan Nolen-Hoeksema had just 
arrived at the University of Pennsylvania as a first-year graduate student, 
and she became the catalyst that made this project happen. Susan was a 
quietly determined twenty-one-year-old whose mentor at Yale sent me a 
note saying she was the best undergraduate he had seen in ten years, and 



he envied the fact that she was determined to study helplessness in children. 
He also warned me not to mistake her quiet demeanor for either shyness 
or ordinariness of mind. 

I described my conversation with Joan to Susan, and her reaction was 
immediate: “This is exactly what I want to spend my life doing.” 

What followed was two years of begging school superintendents near 
Princeton, New Jersey, then principals, then teachers and parents, then 
children, and finally the National Institute of Mental Health, to let us 
undertake a large-scale study to predict who gets depressed and who does 
poorly in the grade-school classroom. We wanted to find the source of the 
depression that afflicts so many young children and damages their school- 
work. In the fall of 1985, the Princeton-Penn Longitudinal Study got under 
way. Four hundred third-grade children, their teachers, and their parents 
began an investigation that was to go on until these children finished seventh 
grade, nearly five years later. 

We hypothesized that there are two major risk factors for depression 
and poor achievement among children: 

• Pessimistic explanatory style. Children who see bad events as per¬ 

manent, pervasive, and personal will over time get depressed and 
do badly in school. 

• Bad life events. Children who suffer the most bad events—parents 

separating, family deaths, family job loss—will do worst. 

The data for the first four years of this five-year study are now in. The 
greatest risk factor for later depression is, not surprisingly, an earlier bout 
of depression. Children who have been depressed once tend to get de¬ 
pressed again, and children who are depression-free in third grade tend to 
be depression-free in the fourth and fifth grades. We didn’t need to do a 
half-million-dollar study to find that out. But over and above this, we 
established that both explanatory style and bad life events are significant 
risk factors for depression. 

First, Explanatory Style: 

Children with pessimistic explanatory style are at a serious disad¬ 
vantage. If your child starts off in third grade with a pessimistic score on 
the CASQ, he is at risk for depression. We divided the children into those 
whose depression scores got worse as time went on and those whose depres- 



sion got better as time went on. Explanatory style separates these two 
groups into the following tendencies: 

• If you start off the third grade with a pessimistic style and you are 

not depressed, you become depressed as time goes on. 

• If you start off pessimistic and you are also depressed, you stay 


• If you start off optimistic and you are also depressed, you get better. 

• If you start off optimistic and you are not depressed, you stay 


Which comes first—being a pessimist or being depressed? It could be 
that pessimism makes you depressed, but it could also be that depression 
makes you see the world pessimistically. Both turn out to be true. Being 
depressed in the third grade makes you more pessimistic in the fourth 
grade, and being pessimistic in the third grade makes you more depressed 
in the fourth grade. The two together form a vicious circle. 

One child we encountered, Cindy,* was caught in this vicious circle. In 
the winter of third grade, Cindy’s parents told her that they were separating, 
and her father moved out. Her explanatory-style scores had been a bit 
more pessimistic than average before this, but she now became listless and 
teary. Her depression scores went sky-high. Her schoolwork began to 
suffer, and she withdrew from her friends, as depressed children often do. 
She then began to think of herself as unloved and as stupid, and this caused 
her explanatory style to become more pessimistic. This pessimistic style, 
in turn, made it harder for her to tolerate disappointment. She interpreted 
even minor setbacks as meaning “Nobody likes me” or “I’m no good,” 
and she got even more depressed. 

Recognizing when this vicious circle has begun in your own child and 
learning how to break it up is one of the crucial things parents must learn 
to do. You will see how in chapter thirteen. 

Second, Bad Life Events: 

The more misfortunes befall a child, the worse his depression. Op¬ 
timistic children resist the impact of bad events better than pessimistic 

* The reader is reminded that to protect the confidentiality of the participants in our 
research I have created composites as my examples both for the children and for patients in 



children do, and popular children resist better than unpopular do. But this 
does not prevent bad events from having some depressing effects on all 

Here are some events to watch out for. When these occur, your child 
can use a lot of your time and all the help and support you can muster. 
It’a also a good time to put the exercises you will learn about in chapter 
thirteen into practice. 

• A brother or sister leaves home for college or work. 

• A pet dies—this may seem trivial, but it is devastating. 

• A grandparent whom the child knows well dies. 

• The child moves to a new school—loss of friends can be very dis- 


• You and your spouse are fighting. 

• You and your spouse divorce or separate—along with parents’ fights, 

this is the number-one problem. 

Divorce and Parental Turmoil 

Because divorce and serious turmoil between parents are increasing 
and are also the common events most depressing to children, we have 
focused in the Princeton-Penn Longitudinal Study on children who have 
experienced them. 

When we began the study, sixty of the children—roughly 15 percent— 
told us their parents were divorced or separated. We have watched these 
children carefully for the last three years and contrasted them to the rest 
of the children. What they tell us has important implications for our society 
at large and for how you should deal with your children if divorce happens 
to you. 

First—and most important—the children of divorce do badly, by and 
large. Tested twice a year, these children are much more depressed than 
the children from intact families. We had hoped the difference would 
diminish over time, but it doesn’t. Three years later, the children of divorce 
are still much more depressed than the other children. Our finding applies 
to all symptoms of depression: The children of divorce are sadder and they 
act out more in the classroom; they have less zest, lower self-esteem, and 
more bodily complaints; and they worry more. 

It is important to realize that these are averaged findings. Some of the 
children did not become depressed, and some of the depressed children 



recovered in time. Divorce does not doom a child to years of depression; 
it only makes depression much more likely. 

Second, many more bad life events continue to happen to children of 
divorce. This continued disruption could be what keeps depression so high 
among those children. These events divide into three kinds. First are the 
events the divorce itself causes, or which are caused by the depression the 
divorce brings in its wake. These things happen more often to children of 

• Their mother starts a new job. 

• Their classmates are less friendly. 

• A parent remarries. 

• A parent joins a new church. 

• A parent is hospitalized. 

• The child fails a course at school. 

Children of divorce also experience more ongoing events that themselves 
might have caused the divorce: 

• Their parents argue more. 

• Their fathers go on more business trips. 

• A parent loses a job. 

Pretty unsurprising so far. But we were astonished by the last category 
of bad events that children of divorce suffer more of. We still don’t know 
what to make of these remarkable facts, but we think you should know 
about them: 

• The children of divorce see a sibling hospitalized three and a half 

times more often than children of intact families do. 

• The child’s own chance of being hospitalized is three and a half times 


• The chance that a friend of the child will die is twice as great. 

• The chance that a grandparent will die is also twice as great. 

Some of these events may be causes or consequences of divorce. But, 
in addition, families that divorce seem to be cursed by more kinds of 
misfortune that seem to have nothing to do with the divorce itself, either 
as cause or as consequence. We cannot imagine how the death of a good 
friend of the child’s or a grandparent dying could be a consequence of 
divorce or how it could be a contributing cause. Yet the statistics are there. 

This all adds up to a very nasty picture for the children of divorce. It 



used to be said that it is better for the children to have their unhappy 
parents divorce than to live with two parents who hate each other. But 
our findings show a bleak picture for these children: prolonged, unrelieved 
depression; a much higher rate of disruptive events; and, very strangely, 
much more apparently unrelated misfortune. It would be irresponsible for 
me not to advise you to take these dismaying data seriously if you are 
thinking about divorcing. 

But the problem may not be the divorce itself. The root of the problem 
may be the parents’ fighting. We have for three years also followed seventy- 
five children from the Princeton Longitudinal Study whose parents have 
not divorced, but who say that their parents fight a lot. The children of 
fighting families look just as bad as the children of divorce: They are highly 
depressed, remain depressed long after the parents are said to stop fighting, 
and suffer more untoward life events than children from intact families 
whose parents don’t fight. 

There are two possible ways fighting between parents might hurt children 
so lastingly. The first is that parents who have grown very unhappy with 
each other fight and then separate. The fighting and separation directly 
disturb the child, causing long-term depression. The second possibility is 
more like traditional wisdom: Parents who fight and separate are very 
unhappy with each other. The fighting and separation themselves have 
little direct effect on the child, but the child is aware of his parents’ great 
unhappiness and that so disturbs the child as to produce long-term depres¬ 
sion. There is nothing in our data to tell us which of these two theories 
is right. 

What does this mean for you? 

Many people are in rocky marriages, filled with strife and conflict. Less 
dramatic, but more common, is this situation: After several years of mar¬ 
riage, many people don’t like their spouses much anymore. This is fertile 
ground for fighting. But at the same time, both parents are often over¬ 
whelmingly concerned with the well-being of the children. 

It seems to be a plain fact—at least statistically—that either separation 
or fighting in response to an unhappy marriage is likely to harm your 
children in lasting ways. If it turns out that parents’ unhappiness rather 
than overt fighting is the culprit, I would suggest marital counseling aimed 
at coming to terms with the shortcomings of the marriage. 

But if the act of fighting and the choice to separate turn out to be 
responsible for children’s depression, very different advice follows if your 
children’s interest—not your own life satisfaction—is primary for you. Are 
you willing to forgo separation? An even harder challenge: Are you willing 
to choose to refrain from fighting? 

I am not naive enough to advise you never to fight. Fighting sometimes 



works: The problem resolves and the situation improves. But many marital 
fights are unproductive. I cannot advise you on how to fight productively, 
since I have no special expertise about this. The only piece of solid research 
I know about on how to fight concerns resolution. Children who watch 
films of adults fighting are much less disturbed when the fight ends with a 
clear resolution. This suggests that when you fight, you should go out of 
your way to resolve the quarrel, unambiguously and in front of your child. 

I believe it is important, beyond this, to be aware at the moment you 
choose to fight that your fighting may harm your children. You may well 
consider fighting your sacred right. After all, we live in an age when many 
people consider letting it all hang out healthy and legitimate. It is deemed 
perfectly all right, if you are angry, to fight, and fight, and fight. This 
attitude comes out of Freudian views of the negative consequences of 
bottling up anger. But what happens if you turn the other cheek? On the 
one hand, unexpressed anger does cause at least momentary rises in blood 
pressure, and therefore might possibly contribute—in the long run—to 
psychosomatic problems. On the other hand, letting anger out often causes 
delicately poised relationships to topple. Anger escalates and, unresolved, 
begins to take on a life of its own. The couple winds up living in a balance 
of recriminations. 

But these consequences of not fighting affect you and your spouse. As 
far as your children are concerned, there is very little to be said in favor 
of parents’ fighting. Therefore, I choose to go against the prevailing ethic 
and recommend that, if it is your children you care most about, you step 
back and think twice or three times before you fight. Being angry and 
fighting are not a human right. Consider swallowing anger, sacrificing pride, 
putting up with less than you deserve from your spouse. Step back before 
provoking your spouse and before answering a provocation. Fighting is a 
human choice, and it is your child’s well-being, more than yours, that may 
be at stake. 

Our research shows the following chain of events to be common: Parental 
fighting or separation leads to a marked increase in the child’s depression. 
The depression itself then causes school problems to increase and explan¬ 
atory style to become much more pessimistic. School problems combine 
with this newly minted pessimism to maintain depression, and a vicious 
circle has begun. Depression now becomes a permanent way of life for 
your child. 

An escalation of parental fighting, or the decision to separate, marks 
exactly the point at which your child needs extra help to prevent depression 
and the shift to pessimism, and to ward off school problems. This is exactly 
when he will need special help from his teachers and from you. 



Go out of your way to be very close to your child. One major loving rela¬ 
tionship, undisturbed, may counteract the effects of fighting. This is also 
the time to consider professional help. Therapy for you and your spouse 
may teach you to fight less and more productively. Therapy for your 
child at this stage of your marriage just might prevent a lifetime of 
depression for him. 

Girls vs. Boys 

The disastrous long-term effects of divorce and fighting were not the 
only data that surprised us. We had been very interested in sex differences. 
We had strong expectations about which sex should be more depressed 
and pessimistic, but when we looked at our data, we found the opposite— 
over and over again. 

As you know from chapters four and five, adult women are much more 
depressed on average than men. Twice as many women are found to suffer 
depression—whether the phenomenon is measured by treatment statistics, 
by door-to-door surveys, or by number of symptoms. We supposed that 
this must begin in childhood and that we would find that girls are more 
depressed than boys and have a more pessimistic explanatory style. 

Not so. At every point in our study, the boys are more depressed than 
the girls. The average boy will have many more depressive symptoms and 
suffer more severe depression than the average girl. Among the boys in 
the third and fourth grades, a whopping 35 percent are found to be severely 
depressed at least once in the third and fourth grades. Among the girls 
only 21 percent showed severe depression. The difference is confined to 
two sets of symptoms: The boys show more behavioral disturbance (e.g., 
“I get in trouble all the time") and more anhedonia (lack of enjoyment, 
not enough friends, social withdrawal). In sadness, diminished self-esteem, 
and bodily symptoms, the boys do not exceed the girls. 

The explanatory-style differences are parallel. To our surprise, the girls 
are more optimistic than the boys, at each measuring. They are more opti¬ 
mistic than the boys about good events and less pessimistic about bad ones. 

So the Princeton-Penn Longitudinal Study yielded another surprise. Boys 
are more pessimistic and more depressed than girls, and boys are more 
fragile in their response to bad events, including divorce. This means that 
whatever causes the huge difference in depression in adulthood, with 
women twice as vulnerable as men, it does not have its roots in childhood. 
Something must happen at or shortly after puberty that causes a flip-flop 



—and hits girls very hard indeed. We can only guess what this might be. 
But the children we are following are just approaching puberty now, so in 
its last year the Princeton-Penn Longitudinal Study may tell us what hap¬ 
pens around puberty that shifts the burden of depression from males to 


One spring day in 1983 I listened to Willis Stetson, the University of 
Pennsylvania’s dean of admissions, describe the problems the admissions 
office had—actually, the errors it made. I had come because I was master 
of one of Penn’s colleges and had seen close up just how poor the results 
of the selection procedure could be. I volunteered to let the admissions 
office try my test out, to see if it would help predict academic success better 
than current methods did. 

“After all,” Dean Stetson was complaining, “it’s just a statistical guess. 
We have to accept a certain number of mistakes.” 

I asked him how Penn admits freshmen. 

“We take three important academic factors into account,” he said. 
“Grades in high school, College Board scores, and achievement-test re¬ 
sults. We have a regression equation—thank God I don’t have to explain 
that to you. We plug the three scores into the equation, and we come up 
with a number, like 3.1. That is in fact the students’ predicted average for 
the freshman year. We call it the PI, or predictive index. If it’s high enough, 
you get admitted.” 

I knew, indeed, what regression equations are, and how fallible they 
are. A regression equation takes into account past factors, like your SAT 
scores and your high-school grades, and relates them to some future cri¬ 
terion, like grade-point average in college. It then jiggers the numbers 
around in order to assign a weight to each past factor and make it fit the 
criterion. For example, if you were trying to predict the birth weight of a 
baby from the weights of its parents, you might look at the last thousand 
babies born in a certain hospital and note their weights, and then note 
their parents’ weights, and you might find that if you divide the mother’s 
weight by 21.7 and the father’s weight by 43.4 and then average those two 
numbers, the result would correspond to the baby’s birth weight. There 
would be no significance in the number 21.7 or the number 43.4; the weights 
wouldn’t connect to any law of nature; they’d be statistical accidents. 
Regression equations are what you do when you don’t know what else 
to do. 



That’s what the admissions committee at the university was up to. They 
were taking the SATs and high-school grades for several freshman classes 
running and correlating the data with the grade-point average all these 
freshmen got. They saw then that roughly—but only roughly—the higher 
the SATs, the better the college grades, and the higher the high-school 
grades, the better the college grades. 

But it might turn out, for instance, that the SATs were twice as good a 
predictor of college grades as high-school grades were, and one and a half 
times better than the achievement tests. So, it might turn out that 5.66 
times the grades in high school plus 3.21 times the achievement-test scores 
plus 2.4 times the SAT total best “fit” later freshman grades, when all the 
results were averaged over the last ten freshman classes. The weights are 
arbitrary, chosen because they happen to fit. For this reason, college-grade 
prediction is very much a statistical guess. You get the majority right, but 
you make lots of errors. And lots of errors mean disappointed, complaining 
parents, overworked professors, and undergraduate academic misfits. 

“We make two kinds of errors,” Dean Stetson continued. “First, some 
students—a small number, I’m happy to say—do much worse as freshmen 
than they are expected to do. Second, a much larger number do much 
better than their PI. Even so, we’d like to decrease our margin of error. 
Tell me more about this test of yours.” 

I explained the ASQ and the theory behind it. I told the dean that people 
determined by the test to be optimists do better than they are expected to 
do, probably because they try harder in the face of challenge, whereas 
pessimists give up when they fail. For more than an hour I went over the 
ASQ and how it worked. I told him what we were doing with the Met¬ 
ropolitan Life Insurance Company and discussed what the consequences 
of the ASQ for University of Pennsylvania admissions might be: a further 
reduction in the margin of error, and the ability to predict freshman grades 
over and above the PI. “You’re missing some good kids,” I said, “and 
you’re admitting some others who will only crash. Either way, it’s a tragedy 
for the kids and bad for Penn.” 

Finally Dean Stetson said: “Let’s give it a shot. Let’s try it on the class 
of ’87.” 

So the week the class of ’87 arrived, over three hundred of them took 
the ASQ. And then we just waited. We waited for them to suffer through 
their first midterms and the grueling two weeks of final exams. We waited 
for these students—many of whom were all-stars in high school—to find 
out what the competition at a major university was like. We waited for 
some to go under and some to rise to the challenge. 

At the end of the first semester, we saw the errors that the dean worried 
about. Fully one-third of the students had done either much better or much 



worse than their SATs, high-school grades, and achievement tests pre¬ 
dicted. Of these hundred freshmen about twenty did much worse and about 
eighty did much better. 

We saw what we expected by now—the same thing we were seeing with 
life-insurance salesmen and with fourth-graders. Freshmen who rose to the 
occasion and did much better than their level of “talent” were, on the 
average, optimists when they entered. Those who did much worse than 
they should have had entered as pessimists. 

Beast Barracks 

Failing a midterm exam in college and getting rejected for the lead in 
the Easter show in third grade are pretty mild, compared to the whole 
range of human failure. But at least one academic setting produces stress 
on a more worldly scale: “Beast Barracks” at West Point. 

When the nervous eighteen-year-old plebe arrives for the first time at 
West Point in early July, he (actually it is now also she) is greeted by an 
upper-class cadre whose job is to teach him iron discipline for the rest of 
the summer—standing at attention for long periods, ten-mile dawn marches 
at double time, shining and reshining brass, memorizing line after line of 
fraternal nonsense, and obedience, obedience, obedience. The point is to 
mold the character necessary for U.S. Army officers of the future. West 
Pointers think it has worked well for over 150 years. 

As abused as he is, the plebe is a precious commodity. Plebes are selected 
for leadership and academic potential from a huge pool of applicants. West 
Point is one of the most elite of all American colleges. Plebes’ SATs are 
high; their athletic prowess is exceptional; their high-school grades, par¬ 
ticularly in engineering-related courses, have been outstanding; and, most 
important of all, they have been conspicuously fine members of their com¬ 
munity—the eagle scouts. The education of one West Pointer costs around 
$250,000 and each empty spot in the graduating class can be reckoned as 
a loss to the taxpayer of this magnitude. Yet many cadets are wasted along 
the way by the rigors of the program—quite a number before they even 
begin it. 

I learned all this in February 1987, when I got a call from Richard Butler, 
the head of personnel research for West Point. “Dr. Seligman,” he began 
in a crisp voice that sounded accustomed to command, “I think Uncle Sam 
needs you. We have a dropout problem at West Point that you might be 
able to do something about. We admit twelve hundred plebes a year. They 
arrive for Beast Barracks on July first. Six quit on the first day and by the 



end of August—before classes have begun—we’ve lost a hundred. Will 
you try to help us predict who drops out?” 

I consented eagerly. It sounded like an ideal setting to test the power 
of optimism to keep people going through the most rigorous academic 
setting I had ever heard of. In principle, the pessimists should be the 
quitters—just as at Metropolitan Life and among University of Pennsyl¬ 
vania freshmen. 

So on July 2 I drove north with a special research assistant, my fourteen- 
year-old son, David, to help me pass out the questionnaires. The cadre 
marched the entire plebe class into the gleaming new Eisenhower Audi¬ 
torium, and twelve hundred of America’s choicest young people stood at 
attention waiting for our permission to sit down and begin the test. Beast 
Barracks, we were told, had been “softened” for the first time in decades. 
Prolonged bracing (standing at extreme attention) and food and water 
deprivation were now forbidden. In any case I was impressed with the 
spectacle, and David was awestruck. 

Dick Butler’s statistics proved accurate. Six plebes quit on the first day, 
one right in the middle of the test. He got up, vomited, and raced out of 
the auditorium. One hundred had quit by the end of August. 

At this writing we have now followed the class of ’91 for two years. Who 
quits? Once again, the pessimists. Those plebes who explained bad events 
by saying “It’s me, it’s going to last forever, it’s going to undermine every¬ 
thing I do” are at greatest risk for not making it through the rigors of Beast 
Barracks. Who gets better grades than the SATs predict? The optimists. 
And the pessimists get worse grades than their SATs predict. 

I cannot yet recommend that a traditional place like West Point change 
its admission and training policies based on these first findings. But it looks 
to me as if selecting for optimism among our future officers could produce 
better leadership in the military. Even more intriguing is the possibility 
that using techniques of the sort you will learn later in this book to help 
pessimists become optimists could salvage quite a few dropouts and give 
them a chance to become the fine officers their talents augur. 

Traditional Wisdom About Success 
at School 

For almost a hundred years aptitude and talent have been the code 
words for academic success. These idols occupy the place of honor on the 
altars of all admissions and personnel officials. In America you can’t even 



get placed on the track unless your IQ or your SAT score or your MCAT 
score is high enough, and the situation is even worse in Europe. 

I think “talent” is vastly overrated. Not only is talent imperfectly mea¬ 
sured, not only is it an imperfect predictor of success, but also the tradi¬ 
tional wisdom is wrong. It leaves out a factor that can compensate for low 
scores or greatly diminish the accomplishments of highly talented people: 
explanatory style. 

Which comes first—optimism or achievement in the classroom? Com¬ 
mon sense tells us that people become optimistic as a consequence of being 
talented or because they do well. But the design of our classroom studies 
clearly establishes that the causal arrow also points in the opposite direc¬ 
tion. In our studies, we hold talent—SAT scores, IQ, life-insurance qual¬ 
ification test scores—constant to begin with and then look at what happens 
to the optimists and pessimists among the highly talented. Over and above 
their talent-test scores, we repeatedly find that pessimists drop below their 
“potential” and optimists exceed it. 

I have come to think that the notion of potential, without the notion of 
optimism, has very little meaning. 



I can’t abide the eleven o’clock news. It’s not just the fact that models 
read the stuff. It’s what they read and the film clips they show. A fire in 
North Philadelphia was the big story last night. I was treated to thirty 
seconds of flames shooting out of windows, one minute of interviews with 
the survivors, who were mostly bewailing their lost possessions, and one 
minute with the sobbing wife of a fireman overcome by smoke inhalation. 
Don’t misunderstand: It was a tragic event and deserved some coverage. 
But the producers of the eleven o’clock news seem to believe that the 
American public consists mostly of morons interested only in tear-jerking 
anecdotes and incapable of understanding statistics and analysis. So what’s 
really newsworthy about that fire is not reported: the astonishingly high 
rate of fires in the slums at the start of the heating season; the decrease 
in the frequency of smoke inhalation among firefighters; the low percentage 
of full claims on fire damage paid by insurance companies—in short, the 
statistics that get at the underlying causes of particular sensational events. 

Bertrand Russell said that the mark of a civilized human being is the 
ability to read a column of numbers and then weep. Is the American public 
as “uncivilized” as the news producers think? Are we incapable of under¬ 
standing statistical arguments or do we only understand anecdotes? 

You only have to spend an afternoon in any baseball park in America 
to know how badly the general public’s capacity to appreciate and enjoy 
statistics has been underestimated by our tastemakers. Every child over 
six in the park knows what a .300 hitter is and knows Tofiy Gwynn is more 
likely to get a hit than Juan Samuel is. Every beer-guzzling adult in the 
park knows what an earned run average is, even though this is a more 



complicated statistic than the basic statistics on fire-insurance claims ano 
the dangers of oil-heater start-ups. 

Americans delight in sports statistics. We positively revel in probabili¬ 
ties—when they concern Jose Canseco or Dwight Gooden or Larry Bird. 
They are the grist for sports betting, a business now rivaling traditional 
American industry in gross take. Bill James and the Elias Sports Bureau 
write massive, ingenious compilations of baseball statistics that sell tens of 
thousands of copies each year. And it is not just the general public that 
loves this stuff. It makes for serious scientific reading as well, for profes¬ 
sional sports is now one of the best quantitatively documented activities 
in the world. Theories that make fine-grained predictions about human 
capacity can use these veritable almanacs of sport to test themselves. 

This is true of explanatory-style theory, and my students and I have 
spent thousands of hours reading the sports pages and testing my theory 
against sports statistics. What does my view of optimism say about the 
playing field? 

Quite simply, there are three basic predictions for sports. First, every¬ 
thing else being equal, the individual with the more optimistic explanatory 
style will go on to win. He will win because he will try harder, particularly 
after defeat or under stiff challenge. 

Second, the same thing should hold for teams. If a team can be char¬ 
acterized by its level of optimism, the more optimistic team should win— 
if talent is equal—and this phenomenon should be most apparent under 

Third, and most exciting, when athletes’ explanatory style is changed 
from pessimistic to optimistic, they should win more, particularly under 

The National League 

Consi der the great American pastime—baseball. I confess, at the outset, 
that I love this kind of science. In spite of innumerable hours squinting at 
microfilm, in spite of too many midnight sessions poring over endless col¬ 
umns of batting averages, in spite of attempts to invent new statistics only 
to find them worthless or redundant, this research is more fun than any I 
have ever done. Not just because I love baseball (I can be found in the 
third row behind home plate at most of the Phillies’ home games), but 
because these findings take us to the very heart of human success and 



failure. They tell us how the “agony of defeat” and the “thrill of victory” 
really work. 

But stating the predictions of the theory is much easier than seeing if 
they are right. There are three problems. 

First, does a team—a group of individuals—have an explanatory style? 
All our past work had shown that pessimistic individuals do worse, but is 
there such a thing as a pessimistic team ? And does a pessimistic team do 
worse? To answer these questions, we use the CAVE technique and study 
for an entire season every sports-page quote including a causal statement 
for each individual on a team. Because sportswriters focus on bad events, 
such quotes abound in the daily sports section of every newspaper. We 
use raters blind to who said it and what team they are on, and we compute 
a profile for each player. We also study the manager. Finally we average 
all the individuals and get a team explanatory style. We then compare all 
the teams in the league. 

The second problem concerns the sports-page quotes themselves. We 
don’t have the clout or the resources to interview all the leading baseball 
players ourselves. So we rely on what is reported in the sports pages of 
hometown newspapers and in that marvelous gold mine, Sporting News. 
Now, what a player says to a reporter is pretty degraded scientific material. 
The quote itself may be inaccurate, hyped by the reporter to make more 
exciting copy. The player may not say what he means. He may try to shift 
or take on the blame. He may try to be overmodest or overmacho for the 
sake of appearances. So we don’t know if the quotes accurately reflect 
explanatory style. The only way to find out is to “bootstrap”: If the study 
does actually predict how a team goes on to do, the quotes must have had 
validity. If it doesn’t predict, either the theory is wrong or the quotes are 
not valid indicators of underlying optimism. 

That’s not the only difficulty with sports-page quotes. There is the sheer 
volume of material to wade through to discover a team explanatory style. 
In our National League study, we read all of the sports pages in the home¬ 
town papers of each of the twelve National League teams for the whole 
1985 baseball season, April through October. Because the results looked 
so fascinating, we then repeated the study for 1986. All in all we “CAVEd” 
about fifteen thousand pages of sports reporting. 

The third problem is how to show that the causal arrow goes from 
optimism to victory and not the other way around. The New York Mets, 
as you will see in a moment, were a very optimistic team in 1985. They 
were also a very good team in 1985, losing out to the St. Louis Cardinals 
in a heart-stopping pennant race in the last week. Did they do well because 
they were optimistic or did their optimism arise because they were doing 



so well? To untangle this, we must predict from optimism in one season 
to victory in the next season, correcting of course for personnel changes. 
Players who leave the team are omitted from the explanatory-style profile. 

But even this isn’t enough. We must also correct for how well the team 
did in the first season. Take the Mets. They were the most optimistic team 
in the National League in 1985. They also had the second-best record (98 
wins and 64 losses). They went on, as we would predict, to do even better 
in 1986. Was this because they were optimistic (as measured by their 1985 
quotes) or merely because they had so much talent (as reflected in their 
1985 win-loss record)? To find out we have to correct for prior win-loss 
record—to hold it 4 'statistically constant”—and see if optimism predicts 
success above and beyond prior success. This is exactly what we did in our 
study of academic success, when we asked if optimism predicted college 
grades better than high-school grades and SATs did. 

We also wanted to know if optimism works its magic by governing how 
a team does under pressure, as the theory claims. My son, David, went 
through the box scores of every game (there are 972 games a season in 
the National League), and we invented statistic after statistic on pressure 
situations. After we were done, we found that the “Elias,” one of the 
statistical almanacs of baseball, computed even better statistics on late- 
inning pressure. So we threw ours away and used theirs. Elias tells us how 
the hitters on a team do in the last three innings of a close game. So we 
predicted that teams optimistic in 1985 would in 1986 have higher batting 
averages under late-inning pressure than would teams that were pessimistic 
in 1985. Again we needed to show that this was above and beyond their 
overall batting averages, by correcting statistically for hitting when they 
were not under pressure. 

The 1985 Mets and Cardinals in 1986 

Two great teams battled neck and neck for the Eastern Division 
pennant in 1985. For the whole season, we grabbed each causal statement 
that newspapers quoted individual Mets and Cardinals as making, and rated 
it. When the season was over we took grand totals. 

Here’s what the Mets had to say as the season went on. I will attach 
actual CAVE numbers to each quote. They range from 3 (very temporary, 
specific, and external) to 21 (completely permanent, pervasive, and per¬ 
sonalized). Numbers in the 3 to 8 range are very optimistic. Numbers above 
13 are very pessimistic. 



Start with manager Davey Johnson, asked why his team lost: 

“We lost because they [the opponents] made the plays tonight” (ex¬ 
ternal—“they”; temporary—“tonight”; specific—tonight’s opponent: 7). 

Their sluggers: First, left fielder George Foster: “I got a fan pissed off” 
because “It must have been one of those days” (7). 

Right fielder Darryl Strawberry, asked why he missed a fly ball: “The 
ball really carried. I just about got my glove on it”(6). 

Strawberry on why the Mets were shut out: “Sometimes you go through 
these kinds of days” (8). 

First baseman Keith Hernandez, on why the Mets won only two games 
on the road: “All the time on the road began to tax us” (8). 

Hernandez again, on why the Mets’ lead had shrunk to half a game: 
“They [the opponents] made a bad play and came up smelling like a rose” 


Star pitcher Dwight Gooden, explaining why a batter hit a home run off 
him: “He hit well tonight” (7). 

Gooden on why the Mets lost: “It was one of those days” (7); “It wasn’t 
my day” (8); “The heat was too much” (8). 

Gooden threw a wild pitch because “Some moisture must have gotten 
on the ball” (3). 

You can probably see what all this adds up to.When the Mets do badly, 
it’s just for today, it’s just these opponents, and it’s not our fault. They 
hereby become a textbook example of optimistic explanatory style in 
sports. As a group, they had the most optimistic style of any National 
League team in 1985. Their average score for bad events was 9.39, opti¬ 
mistic enough for them to be successful life-insurance salesmen. 

Listen now to the St. Louis Cardinals, the team that beat them in the 
stretch and went on to win the playoffs, then lost a heartbreaking World 
Series to Kansas City on the strength of a bad ruling by an umpire. The 
Cardinals were loaded with even more raw talent than the Mets. The Mets 
batted .257 for the year, whereas the Cardinals batted .264; the Cardinal 
pitchers had a slightly better earned run average than the Mets. 

Manager Whitey Herzog (arguably the most brilliant in baseball today): 
The team lost because “We can’t hit. What the Hell, let’s face it” (per¬ 
manent, pervasive, and personalized: 20). 

Herzog on why the press talks much more to Pete Rose (then the playing 
manager of the Cincinnati Reds) than to him: “What do you expect? He 
has 3800 more hits than I have” (permanent, pervasive, personalized: 14). 

Herzog on why the team had trouble all year in games following days 
off: “It’s a mental thing. We were too relaxed” (14). 

The 1985 National League batting champion, Willie McGee, said he 



didn't steal as many bases as he should have because “I don't have the 
expertise” (16). 

McGee played poorly in 1984 because “Mentally, I was bummed out. I 
didn’t know how to accept struggling” (15). 

Slugger Jack Clark on dropping a fly ball: “It was a real catchable ball. 

I just didn’t catch it” (12). 

Second baseman Tom Herr said his batting average dropped twenty-one 
points because “I am having a lot of trouble concentrating and keeping 
my mind on the job” (17). 

What we have here is a portrait of a superbly talented team with a 
pessimistic explanatory style. This is part of what coaches mean when they 
say an athlete has a “poor attitude”; indeed, it may be the only active 
ingredient. Statistically, the Cardinals had a below-average explanatory 
style for bad events, 11.09, ninth out of the twelve teams. Our theory 
claims that a team that does very well in a given season in spite of a poor 
explanatory style must be extremely talented to make up for this handicap. 

And the theory predicts what should happen in the next season: As far 
as these two teams were concerned, the Mets should have excelled and 
the Cardinals should have deteriorated, relative to 1985. 

This is just what happened. In 1986, the Mets were a wonder team. 
Their win percentage went up to .667 (from .605), they won the division 
pennant and the playoffs, and they came from behind in a historic finish 
to steal the World Series from the Boston Red Sox. Their overall batting 
average in 1986 was a respectable .263, but under late-inning pressure it 
went up to a superb .277. 

The Cardinals fell apart in 1986. They won only 49 percent of their 
games, finishing nowhere. In spite of massive talent, they batted only .236 
overall and deteriorated to a miserable .231 under pressure. 

Using their quotes, we computed the 1985 explanatory style for the 
twelve National League teams. Statistically, in 1986, optimistic teams bet¬ 
tered their 1985 win-loss records, and pessimistic teams did worse than 
they had in 1985. Teams optimistic in 1985 hit well under pressure in 1986, 
whereas the hitting of teams pessimistic in 1985 fell apart under pressure 
in 1986, compared to how well both kinds of teams normally hit. 

In general I do not become convinced of my own work’s validity until 
I have repeated it. We repeated the whole study the next year to see if 
explanatory style could again predict how the National League teams would 
do, taking all the quotes for 1986 in order to predict 1987 performance. 
The results were basically the same. The optimistic teams do better the 
next year than their previous win-loss records would suggest, and the pes¬ 
simistic teams do worse. Under pressure, the optimistic teams hit well and 
the pessimistic teams hit poorly. 



The National Basketball Association 

Basketball does two things for us that baseball doesn’t. First, there 
are fewer players, so “CAVEing” becomes a little less labor-intensive. 
Second, and most important, basketball is exquisitely handicapped. For 
each and every game, handicappers predict not only who should win but 
by how much. The “how much” is called the point spread. So, if the New 
Jersey Nets were playing the Boston Celtics on any evening in the mid- 
1980s, Boston would have been favored to win. But you couldn’t bet on 
the Celtics just to win, since they were so likely to win that no one was 
willing to bet against them. So Boston would, in addition, be predicted to 
win by, say, nine points, and you could bet on the Celtics to “cover” the 
spread—that is, to win by nine or more points. If the Celtics did so, you 
doubled your money, but if they won by fewer than nine points (or, freak¬ 
ishly, lost) you lost your money. So exquisitely skilled are the handicappers 
that half the bettors will pick the Celtics to cover and half will pick the 

I don’t bet on sports—in fact, I have made only one substantial bet in 
my life (you’ll read about it in chapter eleven)—so it’s not the betting that 
interests me. Rather, the spread is a terrific scientific convenience because 
it equates the two teams for all known factors, such as skill, home-court 
advantage, who is injured, recent slumps, and so on. Explanatory-style 
theory claims that there is an additional factor which no one takes into 
account, the optimism of the team, and that this will determine how a team 
fares under pressure—above and beyond all the known factors. The more 
optimistic team should do better than handicapping predicts, and the less 
optimistic team worse. This should only happen under adverse circum¬ 
stances, however; for example, after a loss in the previous game. This 
means that the optimistic teams should tend to cover the point spread in 
the game following a loss while pessimistic teams should tend to fail to 
cover the point spread after a loss. 

The Boston Celtics and the 
New Jersey Nets 

In the second most labor-intensive study I ever did, we read the 
hometown sports pages for the NBA Atlantic Division teams for all of 



1982-83, computed the explanatory style for each team, and used the 
optimism level to predict how the teams would fare under pressure in 1983- 
84. We then repeated the study, using 1983-84 sports-page explanatory 
style to predict the 1984-85 season. All in all we read over ten thousand 
sports pages, and we assembled about a hundred event-explanation quotes 
for each team. 

Let’s look at the two extremes. First, some representative quotes from 
the Boston Celtics explaining bad events: 

A loss: “The fans [at the opponents’ home court] are by far the noisiest 
and most outrageous crowd in the NBA” (9). 

Another loss: “Strange things just happen to us there [opponents’ home 
court]” (8). 

A low-scoring quarter: “The crowd was very dead” (6). 

Loss of a playoff game: “They were making good, quick cuts to the 
basket” (6). 

Loss of the first game in the finals: “That’s the best I’ve ever seen a 
team run” (8) and “They [the opponents] threw caution to the winds” (4). 

An opponent’s scoring forty points: “The way he played tonight, he was 
going to get his forty points regardless of who was on him. We were draped 
on him. We held him. We punched him, kicked him down, the guy was 
unreal” (5). 

The Celtics sound like manic patients. Bad events were always explained 
away as temporary, specific, and not their fault. The Celtics beat the point 
spread in 68.4 percent of the games following a loss in 1983-84 and in an 
amazing 81.3 percent of such games in 1984-85. (Remember that on av¬ 
erage a team beats the point spread 50 percent of the time. The Celtics 
beat the spread in 51.8 percent and 47.3 percent of games following a win 
in 1983-84 and 1984-85 respectively.) They were an almost uncanny come¬ 
back team. 

Now listen to the 1982-83 New Jersey Nets explaining bad events: 

Loss of a playoff game: “We are all missing everything” (18) and “We 
botched up things ourselves and blew all our opportunities” (16). 

Other losses: “This is one of the physically weakest teams I’ve ever 
coached” (18); “Our intelligence was at an all-time low” (15); and “We’re 
passing up shots. We have no confidence at all” (17). 

The Nets were not physically a bad team in 1983-84. They won 51.8 
percent of their games. But mentally they were shipwrecked. As you heard, 
they explained losses as permanent, pervasive, and their own fault. How 
did they do after a loss in 1983-84? They beat the spread a dismal 37.8 
percent of the time in games after losses. After wins, however, they beat 
the spread 48.7 percent of the time. The Nets improved their explanatory 



style during 1983-8 , largely because of personnel changes, and during 
1984-85 they went on to beat the point spread after a loss 62.2 percent of 
the time. 

Overall, here is what we found. A team's explanatory style for bad events 
strongly predicts how they do against the point spread after a loss in the 
next season. The optimistic teams cover the spread more often than the 
pessimistic teams do. This effect of optimism works above and beyond 
the “quality” of the team. We know this since the point spread itself holds 
quality constant (teams should beat it, on average, 50 percent of the time 
regardless of how good or bad they are) and because we partial out the 
win-loss record from both the current and the previous seasons, as well as 
how often the team beat the spread after a win. 

We also found the same trend we saw in baseball's National League: A 
team’s overall win-loss record in the next season is predicted by their 
explanatory style in this season, equating for their win-loss record in this 

Consider the basketball and baseball studies together. They show: 

• Teams, and not just individuals, have a meaningful and measurable 

explanatory style. 

• Explanatory style predicts how teams will do above and beyond how 

“good” a team is. 

• Success on the playing field is predicted by optimism. 

• Failure on the playing field is predicted by pessimism. 

• Explanatory style works by means of how a team does under pres¬ 

sure—after a loss or in the late innings of close games. 

The Berkeley Swimmers 

There was a lot of hype in the press about Berkeley swimming star 
Matt Biondi’s chances in the 1988 Seoul Olympics. He was scheduled to 
swim seven events, and the American press made it sound likely that he 
would win seven gold medals, duplicating Mark Spitz’s unparalleled per¬ 
formance in the 1972 Olympics. To insiders any seven medals—gold, silver, 
or bronze—Biondi won against the competition in Seoul would represent 
superb swimming. 

The first event Biondi swam was the two-hundred-me ter freestyle. He 
finished a disappointing third. The second event was the one-hundred- 
meter butterfly, not his premier event. Overpowering the field, he led all 



the way. But in the last two meters, rather than taking one extra stroke 
and crashing into the finish wall, he appeared to relax and coast the final 
meter. You could hear the groan in Seoul, and imagine it across America, 
as he was inched (centimetered?) out by Anthony Nesty of Surinam, who 
took the extra stroke to win Surinam's first medal ever. The “agony of 
defeat" interviewers hammered Biondi on the disappointment of a bronze 
and a silver medal and speculated that he might not be able to rebound. 
Would Biondi carry home gold in his five remaining events after this em¬ 
barrassing start? 

I sat in my living room confident that he would. I had reason to believe 
this, because we had tested Matt Biondi in Berkeley four months before 
to determine his capacity to do just what he had to do now—come back 
from defeat. 

Along with all his teammates, he had taken the Attributional Style Ques¬ 
tionnaire, and he had come out in the top quarter of optimism of an 
optimistic bunch. We had then simulated defeat under controlled condi¬ 
tions in the pool. Nort Thornton, Biondi’s coach, had him swim the one- 
hundred-yard butterfly all out. Biondi swam it in 50.2 seconds, a very 
respectable time. But Thornton told him that he had swum 51.7, a very 
slow time for Biondi. Biondi looked disappointed and surprised. Thornton 
told him to rest up for a few minutes and then swim it again—all out. 
Biondi did. His actual time got even faster, 50.0. Because his explanatory 
style was highly optimistic and he had shown us that he got faster—not 
slower—after defeat, I felt he would bring back gold from Seoul. 

In his last five events in Seoul, Biondi won five gold medals. 

Our baseball and basketball studies show that teams have an explanatory 
style that predicts athletic success. But do the explanatory styles of indi¬ 
vidual athletes predict how they will do, particularly under pressure? This 
is the question that Biondi and his teammates helped us answer. 

I’ve never met Nort Thornton. I’ve only seen him on television. But 
Nort and his wife, Karen Moe Thornton, respectively the men’s and wom¬ 
en’s swimming coaches at the University of California at Berkeley, are two 
of my most valued collaborators. And collaborators like the Thorntons are 
among the most precious assets a scientist can have. I’ve talked to Nort 
only on the phone, and hfs first call came in March 1987. 

“I’ve read about your studies on insurance salesmen,’’ he said, “and I 
wonder if the same thing might work in swimming. Let me tell you why I 
think it would work.’’ 

I did everything I could to restrain myself and not shout back “Yes! 
Yes! Yes!’’ before Nort had finished telling me his line of reasoning. “It 
sounds like you measure something—deeply held positive beliefs—that 



we, as coaches, can’t quite get hold of,” Nort continued. “We know attitude 
is important, but kids can fake attitude and fall flat when it matters. We 
also don’t know how to change a bad attitude very well.” 

In October 1988, before the season started, all fifty of the men’s and 
women’s varsity swimmers took the ASQ. In addition, Nort and Karen 
rated each of the swimmers on how they thought the swimmers were likely 
to do over the season, particularly under pressure. We did this because 
we wanted to see if the ASQ told the Thorntons anything they didn’t 
already know as coaches intimately familiar with their athletes. 

I found right away that I knew something the coaches didn’t. The op¬ 
timism scores from the ASO were totally unrelated to the coaches’ ratings 
of how the swimmers would do under pressure. But did these scores predict 
actual success in swimming? 

To find this out, Nort and Karen rated each swim for each swimmer for 
the entire season as “worse than expected” or “better than expected.” The 
swimmers also rated themselves for the same thing, and it was clear that 
the coaches and the swimmers were on the same wavelength, since the 
ratings coincided perfectly. I merely totaled up the number of “worse than 
expected” swims for the season. The pessimists on the ASO had about 
twice as many unexpectedly poor swims as the optimists did. The optimists 
lived up to their swimming potential, and the pessimists fell below theirs. 

Would explanatory style work once again to predict the way people 
responded to defeat, as it had in baseball, basketball, and sales? 

To test this, we simulated defeat under controlled conditions. At the 
end of the season, we had each athlete swim one of his or her best events 
all out. Nort or Karen then told the swimmer that his time was between 
1.5 and 5 seconds (depending on the distance) worse than it actually was. 
So Biondi was told that he swam the one-hundred butterfly in 51.7 seconds, 
when he actually swam it in 50.2. We chose the amount of “failure” because 
we knew it would be very disappointing (one swimmer sat and rocked like 
a baby in a corner for twenty minutes afterwards), but undetectable as 
false. Each swimmer then rested and swam the event again as fast as he 
or she could. As we expected, the pessimists got worse. The performance 
of two stars who are also pessimists deteriorated in their hundred-yard 
events by a full two seconds, the difference between winning their event 
and finishing dead last. The optimists either held on or, like Biondi, got 
even faster. Several of the optimists got faster by between two and five 
seconds, again enough to be the difference between a lousy race and a 
win. The swimmers were, of course, debriefed afterwards. 

So the Berkeley swimmers make it clear that explanatory style can work 
to produce success or failure at an individual level, just as the professional- 



sports data show this at a team level. Moreover, explanatory style works 
by the same means for both individuals and teams. It makes athletes do 
better under pressure. If they are optimists, they try harder and come back 
from defeat. 

What Every Coach Should Know 

If you are a coach or a serious athlete, you must take these findings 
seriously. They have several immediate, practical implications for you. 

• Optimism is not something you know about intuitively. The ASQ 

measures something you can't. It predicts success beyond expe¬ 
rienced coaches' judgments and handicappers' expertise. 

• Optimism tells you when to use certain players rather than others. 

Consider a crucial relay race. You have a fast athlete, but he’s a 
pessimist who lost his last individual race. Substitute. Use pessi¬ 
mists only after they have done well. 

• Optimism tells you who to select and recruit. If two prospects are 

close in raw talent, recruit the optimist. He'll do better in the long 

• You can train your pessimists to become optimists. 

I didn't tell you what else the Thorntons wanted. They asked if I could 
take their pessimistic swimmers and make them optimists. I told them I 
wasn’t yet sure, but our programs for change were just being developed, 
and they looked promising. As a way of thanking them I agreed to give 
them first crack in sports at our training program. As I write this chapter, 
our trainers are on their way to Berkeley to teach the entire varsity the 
skills of optimism. You will find these techniques in the last section of this 



Daniel was only nine when the doctors diagnosed him as having Bur¬ 
kina lymphoma, a form of abdominal cancer. He was now ten, and in 
spite of an agonizing year of radiation and chemotherapy, the cancer was 
still spreading. His doctors and almost everyone else had given up hope. 
But not Daniel. 

Daniel had plans. He was going to grow up to be a researcher, he told 
everyone, and discover how to cure diseases like this so other kids would 
be safe. Even as his body weakened, Daniel’s optimism remained strong. 

Daniel lived in Salt Lake City. The main focus of his hope was a doctor 
he described as “the famous East Coast specialist.” This doctor, an au¬ 
thority on Burkitt’s lymphoma, had gotten interested in Daniel’s illness 
and had been consulting long-distance with Daniel’s doctors. He planned 
to stop in Salt Lake City on the way to a West Coast pediatrics meeting 
to meet Daniel and talk with his doctors. 

Daniel had been excited for weeks. There was so much that he wanted 
to tell the specialist. He was keeping a diary, and he hoped the diary would 
give some clues about what his cure would be. He felt he was participating 
in his own treatment now. 

On the day the specialist was to arrive, fog blanketed Salt Lake City 
and the airport closed down. The control tower sent the specialist’s plane 
over to Denver, and he decided to go directly on to San Francisco. When 
Daniel heard the news, he cried quietly. His parents and nurses told him 
to rest, and they promised to get the doctor by phone in San Francisco so 
Daniel could talk to him. But by the next morning Daniel was listless; he 



had never been listless before. He had a high fever, and pneumonia set 
in. By evening he was in a coma. He died the next afternoon. 

What do you make of a story like this? I’m sure it isn’t the first poignant 
tale you have heard of death following hope dashed, or of remission fol¬ 
lowing hope gained. Such stories are told the world over, frequently enough 
to inspire the belief that hope is by itself life-sustaining and hopelessness 

But there are other plausible interpretations. You might believe some 
third factor—for example, a well-tuned immune system—both saves life 
and engenders hope. Or you might believe that we as a species have such 
a deep desire to believe hope works miracles, we tell and retell the few 
cases that seem to prove it—but that are really coincidences—while sup¬ 
pressing the all-too-common stories going the other way around, with ill¬ 
ness following hope and recovery following despair. 

In the spring of 1976 a most unusual application for admission to our 
graduate program crossed my desk. In it, a woman named Madelon Vis- 
intainer, a nurse in Salt Lake City, narrated Daniel’s story. She said she 
had nursed several such cases, both among children with cancer and, in a 
reference she did not expand upon, during her “time in Vietnam.” Such 
“stories,” she said, could no longer be satisfactory evidence for her. She 
wanted to find out if it was really true that helplessness, by itself, could 
kill, and, if it could, to discover how. She wanted to come to the University 
of Pennsylvania and work with me, testing these questions first with ani¬ 
mals, then taking the benefits to people. 

Visintainer’s plain and unpretentious statement, the only one like it we 
had ever seen, moved one of the members of the admissions committee 
to tears. Furthermore, Visintainer’s grades and her Graduate Record Exam 
results were exemplary. There were, however, several holes in her appli¬ 
cation. From the dates she had given, it was hard to figure out where she 
had been at what time, or what she had done during several periods of 
her adult life. She just seemed to disappear every so often. 

After some fruitless attempts to clear up these mysteries, we admitted 
Visintainer. I eagerly awaited her arrival in September 1976. She didn’t 
show up. She did call, saying something about needing to stay one more 
year in Salt Lake City, something about having to direct a grant on cancer. 
Directing a grant on cancer research was strange doings for a person who 
had claimed to be “just” a nurse. She asked if we would hold her place 
for the following September. 

In turn, I asked her if she really wanted to come to the University of 
Pennsylvania and work on such an unfashionable topic. I warned her that 
few psychologists and almost no medical types believed that psychological 



states like helplessness actually caused physical illness. She would be walk¬ 
ing into an academic mine field, and she could expect one obstacle after 
another. She replied that she hadn't been bom yesterday and she knew 
what she was in for. 

She did arrive in September 1977—as unadorned and plain-spoken as 
her application, and also as mysterious. She avoided conversation about 
her past or what she wanted to achieve in the future. But she did superbly 
in the present. She proved to be a scientific whirlwind. She undertook, as 
her first-year project, the awesome task of demonstrating that helplessness 
could cause death. 

She was tremendously excited by the new findings of Ellen Langer and 
Judy Rodin, then young health researchers at Yale. They had worked with 
elderly people in a nursing home, changing the amount of control the old 
people had over daily happenings in their lives. 

They had divided the home by floors. On the first floor, the residents 
received extra control in their lives, and extra choice. One day, the director 
gave a speech to the residents: “I want you to know about all the things 
that you can do for yourself here at Shady Grove. There are omelettes or 
scrambled eggs for breakfast, but you have to choose which you want the 
night before. There are movies on Wednesday or Thursday night, but you 
have to sign up in advance. Here are some plants; pick one out and take 
it to your room—but you have to water it yourself.” 

The director told the second floor: “I want you to know about all the 
good things we do for you here at Shady Grove. There are omelettes or 
scrambled eggs for breakfast. We make omelettes on Monday, Wednesday, 
and Friday, and scrambled eggs the other days. There are movies on 
Wednesday night and Thursday night. Residents from the left corridor go 
Wednesday and from the right Thursday. Here are some plants for your 
rooms. The nurse will pick one out for you and she’ll take care of it.” 

So the extra good things the people on the first floor received were under 
their own control. The people on the second floor got the same added 
goodies, but nothing the residents did affected those goodies. 

Eighteen months later, Langer and Rodin returned to the nursing home. 
They found that the group with choice and control was more active and 
happier, as measured by a variety of scales. They also found that fewer of 
this group than of the other had died. This amazing fact strongly indicated 
that choice and control could save lives and, perhaps, that helplessness 
could kill. 

Madelon Visintainer wanted to investigate this phenomenon in the lab¬ 
oratory, where conditions could be finely regulated, and to understand how 
mastery and helplessness could affect health. She took three groups of rats, 



giving one group mild escapable shock, the second group mild inescapable 
shock, and the third group no shock at all. But the day before she did this, 
she implanted a few cells of a sarcoma on each rat's flank. The tumor was 
of a type that is invariably lethal if it grows and is not rejected by the 
animal's immune defenses. Visintainer had implanted just the right number 
of sarcoma cells so that, under normal conditions, 50 percent of the rats 
would reject the tumor and live. 

This was a beautifully designed experiment. Everything physical was 
controlled: the amount and duration of shock; diet; housing; tumor load. 
The only thing that differed among the three groups was the psychological 
state they were in. One group was suffering learned helplessness, the second 
had experienced mastery, and the third was psychologically unchanged. If 
these three groups turned out to differ in ability to reject the tumor, only 
the psychological state could have caused the difference. 

Within a month, 50 percent of the rats not shocked had died, and the 
other 50 percent of the no-shock rats had rejected the tumor; this was the 
normal ratio. As for the rats that mastered shock by pressing a bar to turn 
it off, 70 percent rejected the tumor. But only 27 percent of the helpless 
rats, the rats that had experienced uncontrollable shock, rejected the 

Madelon Visintainer thus became the first person to demonstrate that a 
psychological state—learned helplessness—could cause cancer. 

Actually, almost the first. As Madelon was writing up her findings to 
submit to Science , the premier journal for major scientific breakthroughs, 
I opened up the latest issue. In it two Canadian researchers, Larry Sklar 
and Hymie Anisman from Ottawa, reported a similar experiment—they 
used mice rather than rats and measured the rate of tumor growth rather 
than ability to reject tumors—with the same results: Helplessness produced 
more rapid growth of tumors. 

Another of Madelon’s discoveries was about rats’ childhood (“weaning- 
linghood,” to purists). Madelon had found that rats who had experienced 
mastery when young would be immunized against tumors as adults. She 
had given young rats escapable shock, inescapable shock, or no shock and 
then waited until they were adults. She then implanted the sarcoma, divided 
each of the original groups into threes, and gave each new group escapable 
shock, inescapable shock, or no shock. Most of the rats that had learned 
helplessness when young failed to reject the tumor as adults, and most of 
the rats that escaped shock when young rejected the tumor as adults. So 
childhood experience proved to be crucial in tumor rejection by adults. 
Childhood mastery immunized, and early helplessness put adult rats at risk 
for cancer. 



When she completed her Ph.D., Madelon applied to various universities 
for an assistant professorship, and some of those universities had insisted 
on a complete vita from her. On seeing one I learned to my astonishment 
that she had already been an assistant professor of nursing at Yale before 
undertaking graduate training in psychology. I learned, further, that she 
had earned a Silver Star and sundry other decorations for courage under 
fire in Vietnam. She had run a hospital in Parrot’s Beak, Cambodia, during 
the 1970 incursion. 

More I could not coax out of her. But now I understood something about 
the sources of the courage and strength of character she had needed back 
in 1976, to wade into the intellectual battlefield she had picked for herself. 
When Madelon entered her chosen field—psychological effects on physical 
health—it was the province of faith healers and hucksters. She wanted to 
demonstrate scientifically that mind could influence disease, and this am¬ 
bition had been met through most of her nursing career with the jeers and 
disbelief of her medical colleagues. According to dogma, only physical 
processes, not mental processes, could influence disease. She turned to 
academe for a sympathetic hearing and support. By the time she turned 
in her landmark doctoral dissertation, she had helped prove that the mind 
can indeed control illness. And even the medical world was beginning to 
believe it. Today Madelon is chairperson of the Department of Pediatric 
Nursing at the Yale School of Medicine. 

The Mind-Body Problem 

Why does the possibility that mental life influences physical illness 
meet with such resistance? The answer reflects the knottiest of all the 
philosophical problems I know. 

There are but two kinds of substance in the universe, argued the great 
seventeenth-century rationalist Rene Descartes: physical and mental. How 
do they act upon each other? We can see how one billiard ball hitting 
another causes it to move. But how does the mental act of willing your 
hand to move cause the physical movement of your hand? Descartes had 
his own quirky answer. He said that the mind runs the body via the pineal 
gland, a brain organ whose function is still not well understood. Descartes’ 
answer was wrong, and scientists and philosophers ever since have been 
trying to figure out by what path mental substance might influence physical 

Descartes was a dualist. He believed that the mental could affect the 



physical. In due course an opposing school of thought developed, and it 
carried the day: materialism, whose adherents believed either that there 
is only one kind of substance—the physical—or who believed that there 
is mental substance but that it has no effects of its own. Almost all modern 
scientists and physicians are materialists. They resist to the death the notion 
that thought and emotion can affect the body. For them that is spiritualism. 
All claims that emotional and cognitive states influence illness run afoul 
of materialism. 

I have wrestled for the last twenty years with three questions about 
health and hope. Each is at the frontier of the attempt to understand 
physical illness, an attempt that is a modern incarnation of the mind-body 

The first question concerns cause. Does hope actually sustain life? Do 
hopelessness and helplessness actually kill? 

The second concerns mechanism. In this material world, how might hope 
and helplessness work? By what mechanism do matters so eminently spir¬ 
itual touch matters so physical? 

The third question is that of therapy. Can changing the way you think, 
changing your explanatory style, improve health and prolong life? 

Optimism and Good Health 

In the last five years, laboratories around the world have produced a 
steady flow of scientific evidence that psychological traits, particularly op¬ 
timism, can produce good health. This evidence makes sense of—and 
supersedes—the torrent of personal stories in which states ranging from 
laughter to the will to live appear to help health. 

In four ways, the theory of learned helplessness strongly suggests that 
optimism should benefit health. 

The first follows from Madelon Visintainer’s findings that learned help¬ 
lessness in rats made them more susceptible to tumor growth. These find¬ 
ings were soon bolstered by more detailed work on the immune systems 
of helpless rats. The immune system, the body’s cellular defense against 
illness, contains different kinds of cells whose job is to identify and then 
kill foreign invaders, such as viruses, bacteria, and tumor cells. One kind, 
the T-cells, recognize specific invaders such as measles, then greatly mul¬ 
tiply and kill the invaders. Another kind, natural killer cells (NK cells), 
kill anything foreign they happen across. 

Researchers looking at the immune systems of helpless rats found that 



the experience of inescapable shock weakens the immune system. T-cells 
from the blood of rats that become helpless no longer multiply rapidly 
when they come across the specific invaders they are supposed to destroy. 
NK cells from the spleens of helpless rats lose their ability to kill foreign 

These findings show that learned helplessness doesn’t just affect behav¬ 
ior; it also reaches down to the cellular level and makes the immune system 
more passive. This means one of the reasons Visintainer’s helpless rats did 
not fight off tumors might be that their very immune defenses had been 
weakened by the helplessness experience. 

What does this mean in terms of explanatory style? Explanatory style is 
the great modulator of learned helplessness. As we saw earlier, optimists 
resist helplessness. They do not become depressed easily when they fail. 
They do not give up easily. Across a lifetime, an optimistic person will 
have fewer episodes of learned helplessness than a pessimistic person will. 
The less learned helplessness experienced, the better shape the immune 
system should be in. So the first way in which optimism might affect your 
health across your lifetime is by preventing helplessness and thereby keep¬ 
ing immune defenses feistier. 

A second way in which optimism should produce good health concerns 
sticking to health regimens and seeking medical advice. Consider a pessi¬ 
mistic person who believes that sickness is permanent, pervasive, and per¬ 
sonal. “Nothing I do matters,” he believes, “so why do anything?” Such 
a person is less likely to give up smoking, get flu shots, diet, exercise, go 
to the doctor when ill, or even follow medical advice. In a thirty-five-year¬ 
long study of one hundred Harvard graduates, pessimists were in fact found 
to be less likely than optimists to give up cigarettes, and more likely to 
suffer illness. So optimists, who readily take matters into their own hands, 
are more likely to take action that prevents illness or get it treated once 
illness strikes. 

A third way in which optimism should matter for health concerns the 
sheer number of bad life events encountered. It has been shown statistically 
that the more bad events a person encounters in any given time period, 
the more illness he will have. People who in the same six months move, 
get fired, and get divorced are at greater risk for infectious illness—and 
even for heart attacks and cancer—than are people who lead uneventful 
lives. This is why when major change occurs in your life, it is important 
to have physical checkups more frequently than usual. Even if you are 
feeling fine, it is particularly important to watch your health carefully when 
you change jobs, leave a relationship, or retire, or when someone you love 
dies. Widowers are several times more likely to die in the first six months 



following the death of their wives than at any other time. If your mother 
dies, see to it that your father has at least one complete physical checkup 
soon afterward—it could extend his life. 

Who, would you guess, encounters more bad events in life? Pessimists 
do. Because they are more passive, they are less likely to take steps to 
avoid bad events and less likely to do anything to stop them once they 
start. Putting two and two together, if pessimists have more bad events 
and if more bad events lead to more illness, pessimists should have more 

The final reason that optimists should have better health concerns social 
support. The capacity to sustain deep friendships and love seems to be 
important for physical health. Middle-aged people who have at least one 
person whom they can call in the middle of the night to tell their troubles 
to, go on to have better physical health than friendless people. Unmarried 
people are at higher risk for depression than couples. Even ordinary social 
contact is a buffer against illness. People who isolate themselves when they 
are sick tend to get sicker. 

When my mother was in her mid-seventies, she had surgery which left 
her for a few months with a colostomy—an opening in her gut, which was 
attached to an external bag. Many people are squeamish about colostomies, 
and my mother was ashamed. She avoided her friends, stopped playing 
bridge, discouraged us from visiting, and stayed home alone until the 
colostomy was closed and the bag removed. Unfortunately, during her 
lonely period she suffered a return of tuberculosis, to which she had been 
exposed as a small child in Hungary. She experienced what is statistically 
a regular cost of loneliness: higher risk for disease, particularly the recru¬ 
descence of those diseases which never completely go away. 

Pessimists have the same problem. They become passive more easily 
when trouble strikes, and they take fewer steps to get and sustain social 
support. The connection between lack of social support and illness provides 
a fourth reason to believe that optimistic explanatory style is likely to 
produce good health. 

Pessimism, Ill Health, and Cancer 

The first systematic study of pessimism's role in causing sickness 
was carried out by Chris Peterson. In the mid-1980s, when he was teaching 
abnormal psychology at Virginia Tech, Chris got his class of 150 students 
to fill out the ASQ. They also reported their health and the number of 



visits they’d made to doctors in the recent past. Chris then followed the 
health of his students for the next year. He found that the pessimists went 
on to have twice as many infectious illnesses and make twice as many visits 
to doctors as the optimists did. 

Was this just because pessimists complain more both on the question¬ 
naire and about their aches and pains, rather than actually being physically 
sick more? No. Chris looked at the number of illnesses and visits to doctors 
before the students filled out the ASQ as well as after. The high rate of 
illness and visits to doctors among the pessimists occur over and above the 
earlier level of health. 

Other studies looked at breast cancer. In a pioneering British study, 
sixty-nine women with breast cancer were followed for five years. Women 
who did not suffer a recurrence tended to be those who responded to 
cancer with a “fighting spirit,’* whereas those who died or who suffered a 
recurrence tended to respond to their initial diagnosis with helplessness 
and stoic acceptance. 

In a later study, thirty-four women visited the National Cancer Institute 
with their second bout of breast cancer. Each of them was interviewed at 
length about her life: marriage, children, job, and the disease. Surgery, 
radiation, and chemotherapy then began. We got these interviews and 
content-analyzed them for optimism, using the CAVE technique that we 
used before. 

Long survival is unusual after two bouts of breast cancer, and after about 
a year, the women in the study began to die. Some died in a matter of 
months; others, a small minority, are alive today. Who survived the 
longest? Those who felt great joy in living and those with optimistic ex¬ 
planatory style. 

Could it be merely that those optimistic women were also not as sick to 
begin with, and therefore lived longer because their cancer was less severe, 
not because of joy or optimism? No. The National Cancer Institute keeps 
invaluable, detailed records of severity of illness—Natural Killer cell ac¬ 
tivity, number of cancerous lymph nodes, degree of spread. The longevity 
benefits of joy and optimistic explanatory style occurred over and above 
the severity of illness. 

Such results did not go unchallenged. In 1985, in a widely publicized 
study of patients with terminal cancer, Barrie Cassileth found that no 
psychological variable made any difference to length of survival. In a special 
editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine, associate editor Marcia 
Angell trumpeted this study as evidence that should lead us to “acknowl¬ 
edge that our belief in disease as a direct reflection of mental state is largely 
folklore.” Ignoring all the well-designed studies and citing the worst studies 



she could find, Angell condemned the entire field of health psychology as 
perpetuating a “myth” that mind could influence disease. The materialists, 
seizing any straw to support the dogma that psychological states can never 
influence physical health, had a field day. 

How can we reconcile Cassileth’s findings with the many studies that 
show psychological state affecting disease? First, Cassileth’s psychological 
tests were inadequate; she used fragments of well-established tests, rather 
than the whole tests. Concepts that usually require dozens of questions to 
measure were measured with one or two brief questions. Second, all of 
Cassileth’s patients were terminally ill. If you are hit by a Mack truck, 
your level of optimism is not going to make much difference. If you are 
hit by a bicycle, however, optimism could play a crucial role. I do not 
believe that when a patient has such a lethal load of cancer as to be deemed 
“terminal,” psychological processes can do much good. At the margin, 
however, when tumor load is small, when illness is beginning to progress, 
optimism might spell the difference between life and death. We have seen 
this in studies of the impact of bereavement and of optimism on the im¬ 
mune system. 

The Immune System 

Materialists view the immune system as isolated from the psychol¬ 
ogy of the person in whom it resides. They believe that psychological 
variables like optimism and hope are as vaporous as spirit, so they are 
doubting Thomases about claims that optimism, depression, and bereave¬ 
ment all affect the immune system. They forget that the immune system 
is connected to the brain, and that states of mind, such as hope, have 
corresponding brain states that reflect the psychology of the person. These 
brain states then affect the rest of the body. So there is no mystery and 
no spiritualism involved in the process by which emotion and thought can 
affect illness. 

The brain and the immune system are connected not through nerves but 
through hormones, the chemical messengers that drift through the blood 
and can transmit emotional state from one part of the body to another. It 
has been well documented that when a person is depressed the brain 
changes. Neurotransmitters, which are hormones that relay messages from 
one nerve to another, can become depleted. One set of transmitters, called 
catecholamines, becomes depleted during depression. 

By what chain of physical events might the immune system sense that 
its host is pessimistic, depressed, or grieving? It turns out that when cate- 



cholamines get depleted, other chemicals called endorphins—your body’s 
own morphine—increase activity. Cells of the immune system have recep¬ 
tors that sense the level of endorphins. When catecholamines are low, as 
in depression, endorphins go up; the immune system detects this and turns 
itself down. 

Is this all just biological fancy or do depression, bereavement, and pes¬ 
simism actually turn off the immune system? 

About a decade ago a pioneering group of Australian researchers 
rounded up twenty-six men whose wives had just died from fatal injuries 
or illness. They persuaded each man to give blood twice, first one week 
and then again six weeks after their wives had died. Thus the researchers 
were able to look at the immune system during the course of grieving. 
They found that the immune system turned down during grieving. T-cells 
did not multiply as rapidly as usual. Over time the immune system began 
to recover. American research has since confirmed and extended these 
ground-breaking findings. 

Depression also seems to affect the way the immune system responds. 
Bad life events and depression were examined among thirty-seven women, 
along with the T-cells and NK cells from their blood. Women undergoing 
major life changes had lower NK activity than women whose lives were 
not in upheaval. The more depressed the women became, the worse their 
immune response. 

If depression and grieving temporarily lower immune activity, then pes¬ 
simism, a more chronic state, should lower immune activity in the longer 
run. Pessimistic individuals, as we saw in chapter five, get depressed more 
easily and more often. This might mean that pessimistic people generally 
have poorer immune activity. 

To test this, Leslie Kamen, a graduate student at the University of 
Pennsylvania, and I worked with Judy Rodin, from Yale. Judy had been 
following the health of a large number of senior citizens living in and around 
New Haven, Connecticut. Several times each year these people, whose 
average age was seventy-one, gave long interviews about their nutrition, 
their health, and their grandchildren. Once a year they gave blood so their 
immune systems could be checked. We rated the interviews for pessimism, 
and then we looked at the next blood draw to see if we could predict 
immune activity. As we expected, the optimists had better immune activity 
than the pessimists. In addition, we found that neither their health nor 
their depression level at the time of the interview predicted immune re¬ 
sponse. Pessimism itself seemed to lower immune activity, unmediated by 
health or depression. 

Taken together, all this evidence makes it clear that your psychological 



state can change your immune response. Bereavement, depression, and 
pessimism all can lower your immune system’s activity. Exactly how this 
works has yet to be precisely determined, but there is one likely path: As 
mentioned earlier, some of the brain’s neurotransmitters get depleted dur¬ 
ing these states; this turns up the brain’s level of internal morphine. The 
immune system has receptors for these hormones and shuts down when 
endorphin activity rises. 

If your level of pessimism can deplete your immune system, it seems 
likely that pessimism can impair your physical health over your whole life 

Optimism and a Healthier Life 

Is it possible that optimists live longer than pessimists? Is it more likely 
that if you have an optimistic explanatory style while you are young, you 
will be healthier for the rest of your life? 

This is not an easy question to answer scientifically. It will not do to 
point to the legions of very old people and show that the majority are 
optimists. They may be optimists because they have lived long and been 
healthy, rather than the other way around. 

Before we could answer this question, we had to answer several others. 
First we needed to find out if explanatory style is stable across a whole 
lifetime. If optimism while you are young is to affect your health into old 
age, it should be the case that your level of optimism lasts a lifetime. To 
investigate this, Melanie Burns, a graduate student at the university, and 
I advertised in senior citizens’ publications for people who still had diaries 
they kept when they were teenagers. Thirty people answered our ad and 
turned their diaries over to us. We “CAVEd” them, creating a teenage 
explanatory-style profile for each person. In addition, each volunteer wrote 
a long essay for us on his or her life now: his health, his family, his work. 
We “CAVEd” this as well, and formed a separate old-age explanatory- 
style profile. How did the two profiles relate? 

We found that explanatory style for good events was completely change¬ 
able across fifty years. The same person could, for example, at one point 
in life regard good events as due to blind fate and at another time as due 
to his own skill. But we found that explanatory style for bad events was 
highly stable across a period of more than fifty years. The women who as 
teenagers wrote that the boys were not interested in them because they 
were “unlovable” wrote fifty years later that they were “unlovable” when 



their grandchildren didn't visit. The way we look at bad events—our theory 
of tragedy—remains fixed across our lifetime. 

This key finding moved us closer to the point when we could ask if the 
explanatory style of a young person affects health much later in life. What 
else did we need before we could ask this question? 

We needed a large group of individuals with certain characteristics: 

1. While young they had to have made a quantity of causal statements 
that had survived and could be “CAVEd.” 

2. We had to be sure they were healthy and successful when they 
made these youthful pronouncements. This was necessary because 
if they were already unhealthy, or already failures, it might have 
made them pessimistic as well as less healthy later. And if that 
were so, optimism early in life would correlate with longer, health¬ 
ier lives, but perhaps only because early ill health or early failure 
produces unhealthier lives. Hardly worth writing home about. 

3. We also needed subjects who had had regular physical checkups 
so we could chart their health across their life span. 

4. Finally, we needed subjects who were quite old now, so there would 
be a lifetime of health to predict. 

That was asking quite a lot. Where could we find such people? 

The Grant Study Men 

George Vaillant is a psychoanalyst I admire greatly. In 1978-79, he 
and I had been “classmates” at a think tank, the Center for Advanced 
Studies in the Behavioral Sciences, in Stanford, California. From psycho¬ 
analysis George had extracted the notion of defense, and he ran with it. 
What happens to us across our lives, he argued, is not a result of the sheer 
number of misfortunes that befall us but of how we defend against them 
mentally. He also thought our habits of explaining misfortunes were among 
our defenses, and he had tested his theories on a unique sample. George 
has spent more than a decade tracking down an extraordinary group of 
men and interviewing them as they grew through middle age into the 
beginning of old age. 

In the mid-i930s, the William T. Grant Foundation decided to study 
healthy people across the whole adult span of their lives. The originators 



of the study wanted to follow a group of exceptionally gifted individuals 
to learn about the determinants of success and good health, and so they 
winnowed five Harvard freshmen classes, looking for men who were phys¬ 
ically very fit and intellectually and socially gifted. On the basis of extensive 
testing they picked out two hundred men—about 5 percent of the classes 
of 1939 through 1944—and have followed them ever since. These men, 
who are now nearing seventy, have for fifty years cooperated fully with 
this demanding study. They receive extensive physical checkups every five 
years, are interviewed periodically, and endlessly fill out questionnaires. 
They have produced a gold mine of information about what makes a person 
healthy and successful. 

When the originators of the Grant study themselves grew too old to 
continue, they looked for a successor young enough to carry the study on 
to the end of the subjects’ lives. It was the time of the twenty-fifth reunion 
of the Harvard men. The originators chose George, then in his early thirties 
and one of America’s most promising young research psychiatrists. 

George’s first important finding from the Grant study was that wealth 
at age twenty does not guarantee health or success. There is a high rate 
of failure and poor health among these men: failed marriages, bankruptcy, 
premature heart attacks, alcoholism, suicide, and other tragedy—indeed, 
one man was assassinated. These men experienced just about the same 
rate of heartbreak and mortal shock as men who were born at the same 
time in the inner city. George’s theoretical challenge has been to try to 
predict and understand who among his subjects would have good lives and 
whose lives will go sour. 

As I have said, his main concern has been what he calls defenses: the 
characteristic way in which people deal with bad events. Some of the men, 
while in college, handled failure with “mature defenses”—humor, altruism, 
sublimation. Others never did: For example, when their girlfriends broke 
up with them, they used denial, projection, and other “immature defen¬ 
ses.” Remarkably, those men who had mature defenses in their early 
twenties went on to much more successful and healthy lives. By age sixty, 
none of the men who had deployed mature defenses at twenty were chron¬ 
ically ill; whereas over one-third of the men without mature defenses at 
twenty were in poor health by sixty. 

Here, then, was the group we wanted. They had made documented 
causal statements while young; they were successful and healthy when they 
made these statements; their health had been followed religiously for a 
lifetime; and they were now in late middle age. In addition, a great deal 
of other information about their personalities and their lives was known. 
Would the optimists among them lead healthier lives than the pessimists? 
Would they live longer? 



George generously agreed to work with Chris Peterson and me. George 
believes that he is custodian of a precious and unique sample, and he 
“lends” it (ever vigilant to protect the anonymity of his men) to other 
serious scientists who wish to find the predictors of health and success 
across the life span. 

We decided to use the “sealed-envelope” technique. George saw to it 
that we worked in complete ignorance of who the men were and which 
ones had turned out to be healthy. First he picked, by random sample, 
half (ninety-nine) of the men and gave us essays they had written when 
they returned in 1945-46 from the Second World War. These were rich 
documents—full of explanations, pessimistic and optimistic: 

“The ship went down because the admiral was so stupid.” 

“I could never get along with the men because they resented my 
privileged Harvard background.” 

We “CAVEd” all the essays and compiled an explanatory-style portrait 
of each of the men at the end of their youth. 

Then one snowy day, Chris and I flew up to Dartmouth, where George 
is a professor of psychiatry, to open the so-called sealed envelope—that 
is, to learn how the lives of the men we had worked on had worked out. 
What we saw was that health at age sixty was strongly related to optimism 
at age twenty-five. The pessimistic men had started to come down with the 
diseases of middle age earlier and more severely than the optimistic men, 
and the differences in health by age forty-five were already large. Before 
age forty-five optimism has no effect on health. Until that age the men 
remained in the same state of health as at age twenty-five. But at age forty- 
five the male body starts its decline. How fast and how severely it does so 
is well predicted by pessimism twenty-five years earlier. What’s more, when 
we fed several other factors—the subject’s defenses and their physical and 
mental health at age twenty-five—into the equation, optimism still stood 
out as a primary determinant of health, beginning at age forty-five and 
continuing for the next twenty years. These men are just entering the time 
of mortality, and so in the next decade we will be able to find out if optimism 
predicts a longer life as well as a healthier one. 

The Mind-Body Problem Revisited 

There is convincing evidence that psychological states do affect your 
health. Depression, grieving, pessimism: All seem to worsen health in both 

I 82 


the short run and the long term. What’s more, it is no longer a complete 
mystery how this might work. There is a plausible chain of events that 
starts with bad life events and ends up in poor health. 

The chain begins with a particular set of bad events—loss, failure, de¬ 
feat—those events that make you feel helpless. As we have seen, everyone 
reacts to such events with at least momentary helplessness, and people 
with a pessimistic explanatory style become depressed. Depression pro¬ 
duces catecholamine depletion and increases in endorphin secretion. En¬ 
dorphin increases can lower the activity of the immune system. The body 
is at all times exposed to pathogens—agents of disease—normally held in 
check by the immune system. When the immune system is partly shut down 
by the catecholamine-endorphin link, these pathogens can go wild. Dis¬ 
ease, sometimes life-threatening, becomes more likely. 

Each link of the loss-pessimism-depression-catecholamine depletion- 
endorphin secretion depletion-immune suppression-disease chain is testa¬ 
ble, and for each we already have evidence of its operation. This chain of 
events involves no spirits and no mysterious, unmeasurable processes. 
What’s more, if this is actually the chain, therapy and prevention can work 
at each link. 

Psychological Prevention and Therapy 

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Judy Rodin said. “We should 
not propose to do something safe. We should propose what we have always 
yearned to do.” Judy, with whom I had worked on the New Haven study 
of the effects of pessimism on the immune system, was vexed. Here was 
a small group of prominent scientists, the world leaders in health psy¬ 
chology, facing the prospect of at last having enough money to make their 
scientific dreams come true—but where were the big dreams? 

Judy is a prodigy: a chaired professor at Yale, president of the Eastern 
Psychological Association, and a member of the prestigious National In¬ 
stitute of Medicine, all before her fortieth birthday. Her role this afternoon 
was as leader of the MacArthur Foundation Network on health and be¬ 
havior. She had called us together to tell us, that frigid winter morning in 
New Haven, that she thought the time was ripe to ask the MacArthur 
Foundation to support the fledgling field of psychoneuroimmunology, the 
study of how psychological events change health and the immune system. 
“The MacArthur Foundation is not stodgy,” she said. “They are looking 
for the kind of project to support that could change the face of medicine 



but is too adventurous for normal funders—like the National Institutes of 
Health—to take seriously. And we’re dredging up the same routine science 
that we submit every three years to NIH for funding. What do you really— 
in your heart of hearts—want to do but have been afraid to propose to 
the establishment?” 

The usually shy and soft-spoken Sandra Levy, a young professor of 
psychological oncology from Pittsburgh, spoke up. “What I’d really like 
to do,” she said with emotion, “is to try therapy and prevention. Judy and 
Marty have convinced us that pessimistic explanatory style produces lousy 
immune functioning and poor health. There is a plausible chain by which 
this might happen. And there is convincing evidence that cognitive therapy 
changes explanatory style. Let’s intervene at the psychological link. Let’s 
change explanatory style, and, yes, read my lips, cure cancer.” 

There was a long, embarrassed silence. Almost no one outside that room 
would have believed that a psychological therapy could boost a poorly 
working immune system. Few people would ever have believed that a 
psychological therapy could cure cancer. To the rest of the profession, this 
would be seen as quackery, flying in the face of accepted medical treatment. 
And nothing can kill a hard-won reputation as a careful scientist quite as 
quickly as intimations of quackery. Psychotherapy to treat a physical dis¬ 
ease, indeed. 

I gathered my courage and broke the silence. “I agree with Sandy,” I 
said, not quite certain what I was getting us into. “If Judy wants something 
visionary, if she wants dreams, okay, let’s try to change the immune system 
by psychological means. If we’re wrong, we’ll have wasted a couple of 
years of our time. If we’re right, and if we can convince the establishment 
by doing an impeccable study—a very big if —this will revolutionize the 
health system.” 

That morning, Judy Rodin, Sandra Levy, and I resolved to try it. First 
came a request to the foundation to support pilot work on cognitive therapy 
to boost the immune system. This was quickly approved, and over the next 
two years, we treated forty patients in the throes of melanoma and colon 
cancer, two quite severe forms of cancer. These patients continued to get 
their normal chemotherapy and radiation. In addition, once a week for 
twelve weeks they got a modified form of cognitive therapy. We designed 
their therapy not to cure depression but to arm these patients with new 
ways of thinking about loss: recognizing automatic thoughts; distraction; 
disputing pessimistic explanations. (See chapter twelve.) We supplemented 
cognitive therapy with relaxation training for handling stress. We also 
created a control group of cancer patients who received the same physical 
therapies but no cognitive therapy or relaxation training. 



“Holy cow! You should see these numbers.” I have never heard Sandy 
as excited as she was on the phone that November morning, two years 
later. “The Natural Killer cell activity is up very sharply in the cancer 
patients who got cognitive therapy. Not at all in the controls. Holy cow!” 

In short, cognitive therapy strongly enhanced immune activity—just as 
we hoped it would. 

It is still too early to know if this therapy changed the course of the 
disease or saved the lives of these cancer patients. The disease runs a much 
slower course than the immune activity, which can change from day to 
day. Time will tell. But this pilot study was enough for the MacArthur 
Foundation. Adventurous souls that they are, they agreed to support the 
long-range project. Starting in 1990 we will be giving cognitive therapy to 
cancer patients on a larger scale, trying to boost their immune systems and 
deflect the disease—and perhaps even lengthening their lives. 

Just as exciting, we will be trying prevention. We will be giving the 
exercises you’ll find in chapter twelve to people at high risk for disease: 
newly divorced or separated individuals and military recruits in Arctic cold. 
These people ordinarily suffer unusually high rates of illness. Will changing 
pessimistic explanatory style bolster their immune defenses and prevent 
physical illness? 

We have high hopes. 


Politics, Religion, and Culture: 
A New Psychohistory 

My boyhood reading of Sigmund Freud powerfully influenced the 
questions that have captivated me since. It left me fascinated by “hot” 
psychology—motivation, emotion, mental illness—and strangely indiffer¬ 
ent to “cold” psychology—perception, information processing, hearing, 
and vision. But another popular writer from my boyhood, usually less 
esteemed than Freud, left an even deeper mark: Isaac Asimov, prolific 
science-fiction writer, novelist, and visionary. 

In his impossible-to-put-down Foundation Trilogy —I read it in one 
thirty-hour burst of adolescent excitement—Asimov invents a great hero 
for pimply, intellectual kids. Hari Selden is the scientist who creates “psy¬ 
chohistory” in order to predict the future. Individuals, Selden believes, 
are unpredictable, but a mass of individuals, like a mass of atoms, becomes 
highly predictable. All you need are Hari Selden’s statistical equations and 
his behavioral principles (Asimov never divulges these to us) and you can 
foresee the course of history, even the outcome of crises. “Wow!” thought 
this impressionable adolescent. “Predicting the future from psychological 

That “Wow!” has stayed with me all my life. As a young professor in 
the early 1970s, I was excited to learn that a field called psychohistory 
actually existed. In due course, with my close friend Alan Kors, then an 
assistant professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, I gave a 
graduate seminar on the topic. The seminar gave us all a chance to look 


I 86 

closely at the academic version of Asimov’s vision. What a disappointment. 

We read Erik Erikson’s attempt to apply the principles of Freudian 
psychoanalysis to Martin Luther. Luther, said Erikson, got his rebellious 
attitude toward Catholicism from his toilet training. Professor Erikson had 
drawn that astounding hypothesis from a few scraps of information about 
Luther’s childhood. This sort of farfetched extrapolating was definitely not 
what Hari Selden had in mind. First, its principles wouldn’t accomplish 
much. They wouldn’t even help a therapist clearly explain the rebellious¬ 
ness of patients lying on his couch, whose childhood he could hear about 
in as much detail as he could bear, let alone the rebelliousness of someone 
hundreds of years dead. Second, what passed for “psychohistory” in those 
days consisted of single case studies, whereas, as Asimov had stressed, to 
make valid predictions you need a mass of instances, in order to dampen 
out unpredictable individual variations. Third, and worst, that kind of 
psychohistory didn’t predict anything at all. Rather, it took events already 
long concluded and concocted a story that—with psychoanalytic hind¬ 
sight—made sense of them. 

When I took up Glen Elder’s challenge, in 1981, to develop a “time 
machine,” Asimov’s vision was still very much with me, and I planned to 
use the technique of content analysis—the analysis of written or spoken 
utterances for what they revealed about explanatory style—to find out 
the optimism level of people who wouldn’t take questionnaires: mother- 
daughter pairs, sports heroes, CEOs locked in a hostile takeover challenge, 
world leaders. But there is another very large group of people who don’t 
take questionnaires—the dead, the people whose actions make up history. 
I told Glen that the CAVE technique was the time machine he had been 
dreaming of. I suggested that it could be used not only on contemporary 
people who wouldn’t take questionnaires but on people who couldn't , like 
dead people. All we needed was their verbatim quotes. As long as we had 
verbatim quotes, we could CAVE them for explanatory style. I pointed 
out that we could use an enormous range of material: autobiographies, 
wills, press-conference transcripts, diaries, therapy transcripts, letters 
home from the battlefront, nomination-acceptance addresses. “Glen,” I 
said, “we can do psychohistory.” 

We had, after all, the three essential things that Hari Selden demanded. 
First, we had a sound psychological principle: Optimistic explanatory 
style predicts the ability to fight off depression, predicts high achievement, 
and predicts stick-to-itiveness. Second, we had a valid way of measuring 
explanatory style in people living or dead. Third, we had large numbers 
of people to study—numbers large enough to allow us to make statistical 

Politics , Religion and Culture: A New Psychohistory 


One morning in spring 1983 I found myself explaining all this to one of 
the yeastiest twenty-year-old undergraduates I have ever met, Harold Zul- 
low. His ideas, his energy, his originality, and his enthusiasm were re¬ 
markable. I explained the CAVE technique to him and described the vistas 
it might open up, trying to impress him and recruit him for the University 
of Pennsylvania. 

“Have you thought about applying this to politics?” he said. “Maybe 
we could predict elections. I’ll bet the American people want optimists to 
lead them, people who tell them that their problems will be solved. Not 
hand-wringers and doubters. You want large numbers? How about the 
size of the American electorate? You can’t predict how individual voters 
will vote in an election, but we might be able to predict how they’ll vote 
as a mass. We could make an optimism profile of the two candidates from 
what they say and predict who’ll win.” 

I liked his use of we, because it meant Harold was going to come to 
Penn. Come he did, and what he accomplished over the next five years 
was unique. With a bit of help from me, he became the first psychologist 
to predict a major historical event before it happened. 

The American Presidential Elections, 

WHATKiNDof president do American voters want? Does optimism make 
a difference to the American voter? 

Political science was Harold Zullow’s hobby, and he began his graduate 
research by indulging in his hobby. We reread the nomination-acceptance 
speeches of the big losers and big winners of recent times. The discrepancies 
in optimism stuck out. Listen to Adlai Stevenson, twice a big loser, ac¬ 
cepting his first nomination before the Democratic convention in 1952: 

When the tumult and the shouting die, when the bands are gone and 
the lights are dimmed, there is the stark reality of responsibility in an 
hour of history haunted with those gaunt, grim specters of strife, 
dissension and materialism at home, and ruthless, inscrutable and 
hostile power abroad. 

Deathless prose, perhaps, but it also consists of one rumination after an¬ 
other. True to his intellectual reputation, Stevenson was dwelling upon 



bad events and analyzing them, without proposing action to alter them. 
Listen to his explanatory style: 

The ordeal of the twentieth century—the bloodiest, most turbulent era 
of the Christian age—is far from over. Sacrifice, patience, and implac¬ 
able purpose may be our lot for years to come. . . . 

I would not seek your nomination for the Presidency, because the 
burdens of that office stagger the imagination, [italics mine] 

These are two vintage Stevensonian explanations. The italic text is the 
explanation, the roman text the event it explains. Very permanent: The 
ordeal to come, many years long, will cause sacrifice. Very pervasive: 
The awesomeness of the burdens cause him not to seek the nomination. 
Adlai Stevenson, a man of high intelligence, was an emotional black hole. 
His explanatory style was depressive and so was his rate of ruminating. 

The speeches of Dwight D. Eisenhower, twice Stevenson’s opponent, 
were as different from Stevenson’s as they could be—low in rumination, 
optimistic in explanatory style, and replete with reference to action. Listen 
to Eisenhower (“I will go to Korea”), accepting the Republican nomination 
in 1952: 

Today is the first day of our battle. 

The road that leads to November fourth is a fighting road. In that 
fight I will keep nothing in reserve. 

I have stood before on the eve of battle. Before every attack it has 
always been my practice to seek out our men in their camps and 
along the road and talk with them face to face about their concerns 
and discuss with them the great mission to which we are all com¬ 

Eisenhower’s speeches lacked the grace and subtlety of Stevenson’s 
prose. Nevertheless, Eisenhower won in landslides both in 1952 and 1956. 
He was of course a great war hero and his opponent’s record by comparison 
was much more modest. Historians doubt that anyone could have beaten 
Eisenhower, and indeed the Democrats as well as the Republicans sought 
him as their nominee. But did Eisenhower’s optimism and Stevenson’s 
pessimism play a causal role in the outcome of the elections? We think 
it did. 

What should happen to a presidential candidate who has a more pessi¬ 
mistic and more ruminating style than his opponent? There should be three 
consequences, all negative. 

Politics , Religion and Culture: A New Psychohistory 189 

First, the candidate with the darker style should be more passive, making 
fewer campaign stops and rising less readily to challenge. 

Second, he should be less well liked by the voters; in controlled exper¬ 
iments, depressed people are not as well liked as nondepressed people and 
are more likely to be avoided. This is not to say that presidential candidates 
are depressed—usually they are not—but rather that the voter is exquisitely 
sensitive to the whole dimension of optimism and picks up even small 
differences between two candidates. 

Third, the more pessimistic candidate should engender less hope in the 
voters. The permanent and pervasive statements that pessimists make 
about bad events signal hopelessness. The more the candidate ruminates, 
the more this hopelessness is conveyed. If voters want a president who 
makes them believe he will solve the country’s problems, they will choose 
the optimist. 

These three consequences taken together predict that the more pessi¬ 
mistically ruminating of two candidates is the one who will lose. 

To test whether the optimism of candidates actually affects the outcome 
of elections, we needed a standard setting in which the speeches of the 
two candidates are comparable with each other and with their predecessors’ 
speeches. There exists a perfect setting—the nomination-acceptance 
speech, in which the nominee outlines his ideas for the nation’s future. 
Until forty years ago the speech was given to the party faithful assembled 
in a hall, and did not find its way into most American homes. But since 
1948 the speech has reached an enormous audience watching on television. 
So starting with the year 1948, we extracted every causal statement from 
every nomination-acceptance speech for the last ten elections, shuffled 
them randomly, and had raters—blind to who said what—rate them for 
optimism by the CAVE technique. In addition we rated rumination, by 
taking the percentage of sentences that evaluate or analyze a bad event 
without proposing a course of action. We also rated “action-orientation,” 
the percentage of sentences that talk about what the candidate has done 
or will do. We added the explanatory-style score to the rumination score 
to yield a total score, which we called pessrum. The higher the pessrum 
score, the worse the candidate’s style. 

The first thing we found when we compared the pessrum scores of the 
two candidates in each election from 1948 to 1984 was that the candidate 
with the lower score—the more optimistic candidate—won nine of the ten 
elections. We did better than the polls did, simply by looking at the content 
of speeches. 

We missed one—the Nixon-Humphrey election in 1968. Hubert Hum¬ 
phrey was slightly more optimistic than Richard Nixon in his acceptance 



speech, and so we picked Humphrey. But something happened on the 
Happy Warrior’s march to what should have been victory at the polls. 
Humphrey’s speech to the Chicago convention was accompanied by riots 
in the streets of Chicago, featuring police beating hippies. Humphrey’s 
popularity plummeted immediately and he began the campaign—the short¬ 
est in modern history—15 percent behind in the polls. But the story did 
not end there. Humphrey steadily gained ground and on Election Day lost 
the popular vote by less than 1 percent. If the campaign had lasted another 
three days, pollsters tell us, the optimistic Humphrey would have won. 

How did the size of the victory relate to the difference in the candidates’ 
pessrum? Very strongly. The candidates who were much more optimistic 
than their opponents won in landslides: Eisenhower (twice) over Steven¬ 
son, LBJ over Goldwater, Nixon over McGovern, and Reagan over Carter. 
The candidates who were just a bit more optimistic than their opponents 
wound up winning the popular vote by a nose: for example, Carter over 

Wait a minute. What comes first, optimism or being ahead? Does the 
greater optimism of the winner-to-be make voters vote for him or does it 
just reflect the fact that he is optimistic because he is already leading? Is 
optimism causal or is it a mere epiphenomenon of being the favorite? 

A good way to look at this is to follow the underdogs who came from 
behind to win. By definition all of them start behind in the polls, in some 
cases way behind. Leading cannot be making them more optimistic, be¬ 
cause they are not leading. In 1948 Truman began 13 percent behind 
Thomas E. Dewey, but his pessrum was much more optimistic than Dew¬ 
ey’s. Truman won by 4.6 percent, confounding all the pollsters. In i960 
John Kennedy began 6.4 percent behind Richard Nixon. Kennedy’s pess¬ 
rum was considerably more optimistic than Nixon’s, and he squeaked 
through by 0.2 percent, the closest modem election. In 1980 Ronald Rea¬ 
gan started 1.2 percent behind incumbent Jimmy Carter. Reagan’s pessrum 
was more optimistic, and he wound up winning by over 10 percent. 

It is possible to control statistically for being ahead in the early polls 
and also for being an incumbent, two factors that would inflate optimism. 
When these factors are controlled, optimism still has an effect—in fact, 
the major effect—on the size of victory, with the differences in pessrum 
predicting the difference in popular vote much more exactly than any other 
known factor. 

There are three possible reasons why optimism works on voters: more 
energetic campaigning by the optimist; more voter dislike of the pessimist; 
and more hope engendered by the optimist. We have no direct measure 
of the second or the third factor, but in seven of the ten elections we could 

Politics , Religion and Culture: A New Psychohistory 191 

count the number of campaign stops each candidate made every day—a 
measure of vigor of campaigning. As predicted, the more optimistic can¬ 
didate made more campaign stops: he was the more vigorous campaigner. 

The nomination-acceptance speech is usually ghosted and highly re¬ 
written. Does it reflect the real optimism level of the candidate, or does 
it reflect the speechwriter’s optimism, or what the candidate thinks the 
public wants to hear? From one point of view it doesn’t matter. This analysis 
of optimism predicts what voters will do based on the impression they have 
of the candidate, whether that impression is valid or manipulated. But 
from another point of view it is important to know what the candidate 
really is like. One way to get at this is to compare press conferences and 
debates, which are more off-the-cuff, with set speeches. We did this in the 
four elections in which debates took place. In each of them, the candidate 
whose pessrum was better at nomination was also better in the debates. 

Then I rated the set speeches and press conferences of half a dozen world 
leaders (to whose identity I was kept blind) for explanatory style. Re¬ 
markably, I found a “fingerprint,” which remains constant from vetted 
speeches to impromptu remarks at press conferences. The scores for per¬ 
manence and for pervasiveness are identical across vetted and unvetted 
speeches, and each leader I looked at had a distinct profile. (I suspect this 
technique could be used to determine whether a written message really 
came from the person in question—say, from a hostage or from the group 
holding him.) The personalization score changed by a constant from 
speeches to press conferences: In other words, personal explanations, such 
as taking the blame, are laundered out of formal speeches, but are a bit 
more frequent in off-the-cuff remarks. 

My conclusion is that, ghostwritten or not, the set speech usually reflects 
the underlying personality of the speaker. Either he rewrites the speech 
to his level of optimism or he picks ghostwriters who match him on this 
important trait. But there has been at least one exception—Michael 


We decided to see if our prediction of nine of the ten postwar elections 
was a fluke, or if, perhaps, voting for optimists is just a phenomenon of 
the television era. We read all the nomination-acceptance speeches going 
back to the McKinley-Bryan campaign of 1900. We analyzed them blindly 



for explanatory style and rumination. This added twelve more elections to 
our portfolio. 

The same thing happened. In nine of the twelve elections, the candidate 
with the better pessrum score won. The margin of victory was again strongly 
related to how much better the pessrum score of the victor was. The three 
exceptions—like the Nixon-Humphrey “exception”—were interesting. We 
missed on all three Franklin D. Roosevelt reelections. In each, FDR won 
by a healthy margin, even though his pessrum was more downbeat than 
Alfred M. Landon’s, Wendell L. Willkie’s, or Thomas E. Dewey’s. But 
we suspect that in these elections the votes were influenced more by FDR’s 
proven record in crisis rather than the hopefulness of his opponent’s 

In the twenty-two presidential elections from 1900 through 1984, Amer¬ 
icans chose the more optimistic-sounding candidate eighteen times. In all 
elections in which an underdog pulled off an upset, he was the more op¬ 
timistic candidate. The margin of victory was very strongly related to the 
margin in pessrum, with landslides won by candidates who were much 
more optimistic than their opponents. 

Having successfully predicted the past, Harold Zullow and I decided it 
was time to try to predict the future. 

The 1988 Election 

Psychohistory as practiced in academia attempts to “postdict” 
events—to predict the past by studying the even earlier past. So in the 
notorious Young Man Luther , Erik Erikson takes what he can glean about 
Luther’s toilet training and “predicts” that Luther will become a religious 
revolutionary, bent on the destruction of authority. Not so astonishingly, 
that’s just what Luther becomes. There seems to be lots of room for peeking 
when the outcome is already known. 

So too with our “postdiction” of the last twenty-two presidential elec¬ 
tions. We knew who won, and although we tried to keep the analysis pure 
and the raters blind—they did not know who said what—a skeptical reader 
would be within bounds to say “Predict something!” Psychohistory be¬ 
comes practically interesting, and methodologically above suspicion, if it 
goes on actually to predict the future, as Hari Selden urged. 

By the end of 1987, after two years of work, Harold Zullow had com¬ 
pleted his analyses of the 1900-1984 elections. 

We at last were ready to try to predict what would happen in 1988. No 

Politics , Religion and Culture: A New Psychohistory 


social scientist had ever predicted major historical events before the fact. 
Economists were forever predicting booms and busts, but when the op¬ 
posite of what they predicted took place, they never seem to be around 
to ’fess up. Our findings from the past looked so strong I felt we could 
stick our necks out. 

We decided to predict in three arenas. First, the presidential primaries: 
Who would be the nominee of each party? Second, who would win the 
presidental election itself. And third, there would be thirty-three Senate 
races to predict. We would begin immediately and gather the speeches 
from as many candidates as we could. 

The Presidential Primaries of 1988 

In January 1988, thirteen contenders were out on the hustings, speak¬ 
ing day after day in New Hampshire, Iowa, and elsewhere. Six Republicans 
were slugging it out, with Robert Dole and George Bush neck and neck 
in the polls. Smart money thought Bush would lose; Dole was tough and 
Bush a wimp. But the evangelist Pat Robertson, the conservative Jack 
Kemp, and the general Alexander Haig could not be counted out. 

The Democratic race was completely up for grabs. Gary Hart seemed 
to be making a comeback from sexual scandals and was once again leading 
the polls. Senator Paul Simon, Governor Michael Dukakis, Senator Albert 
Gore, and Representative Richard Gephardt were all rated as having a 
chance. The Reverend Jesse Jackson, it was thought, would get only the 
black vote. 

The New York Times published the stump speeches—the basic speeches 
the candidates gave several times per day with minor variations. We 
“CAVEd” all thirteen and analyzed them for pessrum. We made our 
predictions. The weekend before the Iowa caucuses in February, Harold— 
worried that no one would believe we had predicted the future if we turned 
out to be correct—insisted we put our predictions in sealed envelopes and 
send them to The New York Times and the administrator of Penn’s psy¬ 
chology department. “If we’re right,” Harold asserted plaintively, “I want 
to be sure no one says we peeked.” 

The predictions were unequivocal. Among Democrats, there was a clear 
winner: the still obscure governor of Massachusetts, Michael Dukakis. In 
pessrum he was head and shoulders better than the pack. There was a clear 
loser: Gary Hart, the besmirched senator from Colorado, was at the bottom 
in pessrum, sounding in fact like a depressed patient. Jesse Jackson was 



quite good in pessrum, high enough to suggest hidden strength and surprise 
the pundits. Dukakis, of course, won, and Hart finished last, quitting the 
race without a delegate. Jackson surprised the world and made a tussle 
of it. 

Among Republicans, there was also a clear winner: George Bush, far 
and away the most optimistic, with a better pessrum score even than Du¬ 
kakis. Robert Dole was far down the list, with an even larger gap in pessrum 
than that betwen Dukakis and Hart. Dole would fade fast by our predic¬ 
tions. Even farther down the list was Robertson and at the bottom, Haig, 
with the darkest pessrum. Robertson would go nowhere, we predicted, 
and Haig would bust completely. 

Bush, as it turned out, bested Dole more easily than anyone had thought. 
Robertson’s candidacy never took off, to the great distress of the Moral 
Majority. Haig was the biggest loser, quitting without a delegate won. 

I couldn’t believe it when Harold and I sat down in early May to review 
how the predictions he’d sealed into envelopes in early February had fared. 
Virtually perfect. 

The 1988 Presidential Campaign 

Only half the primaries were over when we got a call from The New 
York Times. The reporter we had sent our predictions to (it was he who 
actually first suggested we CAVE the stump speeches), seeing how well 
they were working out, had written a story about it. “We’re going to run 
it on the front page,” he said, and asked who would win the election. We 
tried to be evasive. In the stump speeches, we determined, Bush was 
noticeably more optimistic than Dukakis. Bush would win the election by 
6 percent. But we were unwilling to make a prediction on the basis of just 
the stump speeches. Not only were there few event-explanation quotes in 
Bush’s speech, but all our previous presidential-election data were based 
on the nomination-acceptance speech, not on primary speeches. 

Harold was worried, but for a different reason. Both campaigns, Re¬ 
publican and Democratic, had contacted us promptly, wanting us to divulge 
our scoring method. Harold said he didn’t mind all the reporters’ ques¬ 
tions—and I could tell he enjoyed them—but was concerned about the 
candidates themselves. What if they used our principles to rewrite their 
speeches to give the voters what they wanted to hear? It would invalidate 
our predictions for the upcoming elections. 

I told him, a bit uneasily, not to worry. American politicians, I said, 

Politics , Religion and Culture: A New Psychohistory 


were too hardheaded to take our research seriously yet. I could barely 
believe the findings myself, I said, so I thought it unlikely a campaign staff 
would rely on them to rewrite speeches. I suggested we send both the 
Republicans and the Democrats the material; our research belonged to 
the public. The campaigners were just as entitled to it as anyone else. 

Late on a sultry evening in July, Harold and I sat in my living room and 
listened to the live nomination-acceptance speech of Governor Michael 
Dukakis. It was rumored that Dukakis placed enormous weight on this 
speech and that Theodore Sorenson—the great speechwriter for John F. 
Kennedy—had been exhumed to draft it. We sat there with our pencils 
poised, counting the ruminations and explanations as Dukakis uttered 
them. I was doing the explanations and Harold was doing the ruminations. 

In the middle of it I whispered to Harold, "This is a lulu! If he keeps 
this up, no one can beat him." 

It’s time to rekindle the American spirit of invention and of daring; 
to exchange voodoo economics for can-do economics; to build the best 
America by bringing out the best in every American. 

It was a lulu. The pessrum was terrifically optimistic. It was one of the 
most optimistic of any modem nomination-acceptance speech—exceeded 
only by Eisenhower’s in 1952 and Humphrey’s in 1968. It was much better 
in pessrum than Dukakis’s stump speech had been. His optimism seemed 
to have gone way up since the primaries. 

The public liked it too. Dukakis emerged from the convention with a 
very healthy lead in the polls. 

Could George Bush top this performance? 

We could hardly wait until the end of August and Bush’s speech to the 
Republican convention in New Orleans. It too was a real roof-raiser. Bush’s 
explanations of our problems were couched in highly specific and highly 
temporary terms: 

There’s graft in City Hall; the greed on Wall Street; there’s influence 
peddling in Washington, and the small corruptions of everyday 

From his pessrum numbers, Bush’s speech would, in most elections of 
modem times, have bested the other candidate’s. But not against Dukakis’s 
July speech. Bush’s address was somewhat more ruminative and somewhat 
less optimistic than Dukakis’s. We put the pessrum for the speeches into 
our equations (which factor in the effect of incumbency and the influence 



of the polls) and turned the crank. From the nomination-acceptance 
speeches we predicted a narrow victory for Dukakis—3 percent. 

I have never placed a bet on an event—sporting or otherwise. But this 
looked like an almost sure thing. I called the gaming parlors of Las Vegas. 
They refused to quote odds. It is illegal, they told me, to bet on an American 
presidential election in America. This is to discourage anybody from trying 
to fix an election. “Try England,” I was advised. 

It so happened that I was speaking in Scotland in early September. I 
had saved up some British pounds and was prepared to lay them all on 
Dukakis. A friend took me to one betting shop after another. Because 
Bush had overtaken Dukakis in the polls since his convention speech, I 
was able to negotiate 6 to 5 odds. The bet was made. 

When I got back to Philadelphia, I told Harold about my bet and offered 
him a piece of the action. Harold said he wasn’t sure he would take it; his 
voice climbed an octave, sending a shiver of fear down my spine. He wasn’t 
convinced, he said, that what we heard in July was the real Dukakis. Harold 
had been reading Dukakis’s speeches since Labor Day, and they didn’t 
sound like his convention speech. Neither did the stump speech he used 
in the primaries. Harold had begun to wonder if the nomination speech 
was more Sorenson than Dukakis or, worse, if it had been doctored to 
present very low pessrum. He said he’d like to wait until the first debate 
before he bet his graduate stipend. 

In the other four elections in which the candidates had debated on 
television, the person who’d had the better pessrum in the nomination 
speeches also had the better pessrum in each debate. But this time was 
different. It looked as if Harold’s caution was well founded. Dukakis had 
dropped sharply from his convention pessrum, back down to his stump- 
speech level. Bush had stayed steady and was once again showing a more 
optimistic style than Dukakis. 

^Tie morning after the first Bush-Dukakis television debate Harold said 
he still wasn’t ready to take a piece of my bet. His hunch was growing 
stronger: Bush’s campaign performance and his acceptance speech were 
the real Bush—highly optimistic. But Dukakis no longer looked that op¬ 
timistic, and Harold couldn’t help thinking that the July speech was not 
Dukakis. The polls seemed to reflect this. Bush had pulled ahead, and the 
gap was widening. 

The second debate was a pessrum disaster for Dukakis. When asked 
about why he couldn’t promise a balanced budget, Dukakis said, “I don’t 
think either one of us can; really, there’s no way of anticipating what may 
happen.” This suggestion that the problem was permanent and uncon¬ 
trollable had a much more pessimistic tone than Dukakis’s statements in 

Politics , Religion and Culture: A New Psychohistory 


July or even in September. The tone was becoming typical of him. Mean¬ 
while, Bush was steadily optimistic. 

The rest of the campaign displayed the same discrepancy in pessrum: 
Bush’s stump speech was consistently more optimistic than Dukakis’s. To 
Harold and me, as we followed the campaign, it seemed that, sometime 
in early October, in his heart, Dukakis gave up. In late October, we plugged 
the values of the debates and the fall stump speech into our equation and 
produced our final prediction: a Bush victory by 9.2 percent. 

In November George Bush beat Michael Dukakis by 8.2 percent. 

The Senate Elections of 1988 

Thirty-three Senate seats were being contested, too, and for twenty- 
nine of them we were able to obtain speeches both candidates had given 
earlier in the year, mostly in the summer and the spring. Most of these 
were the speeches the would-be senators made when they announced their 
candidacy—that is, well before the close of the campaign. So pessrum 
differences—unlike those in the final Bush-Dukakis debate—could hardly 
stem from being ahead or behind in the polls. The day before the election, 
Harold ran his final pessrum analysis of the twenty-nine and committed 
himself, with sealed envelopes sent to various unimpeachable witnesses. 

The presidential results were in early, but for us the suspense continued 
all night long. Not only had we predicted twenty-five of the twenty-nine 
Senate races correctly; when all the votes were counted, it turned out we 
had predicted all the upsets and all the close races correctly, save one. 

We predicted that in Connecticut Joe Lieberman would upset favorite 
incumbent Lowell Weicker in a squeaker. Lieberman did, by .5 percent. 

We predicted that Connie Mack would upset Buddy MacKay in Florida. 
An optimistic Connie Mack had explained in this external, temporary, and 
specific fashion why taxes had been raised: “Lawton Chiles [the former 
senator] went along with the big spenders and voted himself a pay raise.” 
(Harold scored that explanation a 4.) Mack’s opponent, Buddy MacKay, 
had pessimistically attributed the problems of Florida’s development to 
“Florida’s self-perception.” (Harold gave that permanent, pervasive, and 
personalized explanation a 14.) Though he’d started from way behind, 
Connie Mack won, by less than 1 percent. 

But we missed Montana’s surprising upset of the incumbent John 
Melcher by Conrad Burns. 

So there we were. Using only the explanatory style of speeches and the 



degree of rumination they revealed, we had attempted to predict the pres¬ 
idential primary results, the presidential election, and twenty-nine Senate 
elections. We succeeded completely for the primaries, predicting the win¬ 
ners and the losers for each party long before the polls named a winner. 
The prediction for the presidential election was mixed. I had lost my 
bet, but Harold believed that the Dukakis nomination-acceptance speech 
was not authentic Dukakis. The fall speeches predicted a Bush victory. 
But so did everyone else. We called 86 percent of the Senate races right, 
including all but one of the upsets and squeakers. Nobody else did this 

This then is the first instance I know of in which social scientists have 
predicted major historical events—before the fact. 

Explanatory Style Across Frontiers 

In 1983 I went to Munich to attend the Congress of the International 
Society for the Study of Behavioral Development, and on the second day 
I fell into conversation with an intense young German graduate student 
who introduced herself simply as Ele. “Let me tell you the idea I had when 
you were talking this morning about the CAVE technique,” she said. “But 
first let me ask a question. Do you think that the benefits of optimism and 
the dangers of pessimism and helplessness and passivity reflect universal 
laws of human nature, or do they hold true only in our kind of society— 
Westernized, I mean, like America and West Germany?” 

That was a good question. I told her I sometimes wondered myself 
whether or not our concern with control and with optimism was conditioned 
by advertising on the one hand and the Puritan ethic on the other. Depres¬ 
sion, I said, doesn’t seem to occur in non-Western cultures at anything like 
the epidemic rate it does in Westernized ones. Perhaps cultures that aren’t 
obsessed with achievement don’t suffer the effects of helplessness and pes¬ 
simism the way we do. 

Perhaps, I suggested, lessons from the animal kingdom were relevant. 
It isn’t just Westernized men and women who show the signs of depression 
when they experience loss and helplessness. Both in nature and in the 
laboratory, animals respond to helplessness with symptoms amazingly par¬ 
allel to those of Westernized human beings. Chimpanzees reacting to the 
death of other chimpanzees; rats reacting to inescapable shock; goldfish, 
dogs, even cockroaches act very much like we do when we fail. I suspect, 
I said, that when human cultures don’t respond to loss and helplessness 
with depression, it’s because the punishment of endless poverty, of thou- 

PoliticSy Religion and Culture: A New Psychohistory 


sands of years of having two out of three children die young, has beaten 
the natural response of depression out of the culture. 

“I don’t believe that Westernized human beings have been propagan¬ 
dized into depression, brainwashed into the ethic of control,” I said. “But 
to say that the desire for control and the devastating response to help¬ 
lessness are natural is not to say that optimism works universally.” Consider 
success at work and in politics, for example, I said. Optimism works well 
for American life-insurance salesmen and for candidates who want to be 
president of the United States. But it’s hard to imagine the understated 
Englishman reacting well to the never-give-up salesman. Or the dour Swed¬ 
ish voter electing an Eisenhower. Or the Japanese taking kindly to someone 
who always blames others for his failures. 

I said I thought the learned-optimism approach probably would, in fact, 
provide relief from the torment of depression in these cultures but that 
optimism would have to be adapted to other styles in the workplace or in 
politics. The trouble was, though, that not much work had been done yet 
on examining how optimism works from one culture to the next. 

“But tell me,” I asked, “what was that idea you had while I was lecturing 
on the CAVE technique?” 

“I think I have found a way,” said Ele, “to discover how much hope 
and despair there is across cultures and across history. For instance, is 
there such a thing as a national explanatory style, one that predicts how a 
nation or a people will behave in crisis? Does one particular form of 
government engender more hope than another?” 

Ele’s questions were great, I replied, but almost unanswerable. Let’s 
say we learned, by “CAVEing” things they wrote or said or sang, that 
Bulgarians have a better explanatory style than Navajos do. That result 
would be uninterpretable. It might be more macho to say optimistic things 
in one culture than in the other. The peoples experience different weather, 
have different histories and gene pools, live on different continents. Any 
difference in explanatory style between Bulgarians and Navajos could be 
explained in a thousand ways other than a difference in the underlying 
amount of hope or despair. 

“If you do the wrong sort of comparison,” Ele said, “yes. But I wasn’t 
thinking of Navajos and Bulgarians. I was thinking of a much more similar 
pair of cultures—East and West Berlin. They are in the same place, they 
have the same weather, they speak the same dialect, emotional words and 
gestures mean the same thing, they have the same history up until 1945. 
They differ only in political system since then. They are like identical twins 
reared apart for forty years. They seem a perfect way of asking if despair 
is different across political systems—with everything else held constant.” 

The next day at the congress, I told a professor from Zurich about this 



creative graduate student I’d met the day before. After I described her 
and mentioned that she called herself Ele, he told me she was the Princess 
Gabriele zu Oettingen-Oettingen und Oettingen-Spielberg, one of Ba¬ 
varia’s most promising young scientists. 

My conversation with Gabriele continued the next day over tea. I said 
I agreed that East versus West Berlin differences in explanatory style—if 
found—could be meaningfully interpreted as stemming only from com¬ 
munism versus capitalism. But how, I asked, could she actually get the 
material to compare? She couldn’t just cross the Wall and hand out op¬ 
timism questionnaires to a random sample of East Berliners. 

“Not in the present political climate,’’ she agreed. (Andropov was then 
premier of the Soviet Union.) “But all I need is writings from both cities, 
writings that are exactly comparable. They have to be about the same 
events, occurring at the same time. And they should be neutral events— 
not politics or economics or mental health. And I’ve thought of just the 
thing,” she said. “In about four months, the winter Olympics will take 
place in Yugoslavia. They will be reported in great detail in both East and 
West Berlin newspapers. Like most sports reporting, they will be filled 
with causal statements from athletes and reporters, about victories and 
about defeats. I want to CAVE them in their entirety and see which culture 
is more pessimistic. This will be a demonstration that the quantity of hope 
can be compared across cultures.” 

I asked what her predictions were. She expected that East German 
explanatory style, at least in the sports pages, would be more optimistic. 
The East Germans, after all, were an outstanding Olympic nation, and the 
newspapers were emphatically organs of the state. Part of their job was to 
keep morale up. 

This wasn’t my prediction, but I kept my silence. 

Over the next three months I had several trans-Atlantic phone conver¬ 
sations with Gabriele and received a number of letters from her. She was 
worried about the mechanics of getting the newspapers from East Berlin, 
since it was sometimes difficult to take written material across the Wall. 
She had arranged to have a mechanic friend in East Berlin send her worth¬ 
less kitchen objects, broken cups and bent forks, by mail—wrapped in 
newspaper, the sports pages of course. But this proved to be unnecessary. 
During the Olympics, she was able to walk through the Berlin checkpoints 
unchallenged, carrying as many East Berlin newspapers as she wanted. 

Next came the labor, combing through the three West Berlin and three 
East Berlin newspapers for the entire duration of the Olympics, extracting 
and rating the event-explanation quotes. Gabriele found 381 quotes. Here 
are some of the athletes’ and reporters’ optimistic explanations. 

An ice racer could not stand the pace because “on this day there was 

Politics , Religion and Culture: A New Psychohistory 


no morning sun to cover the ice with a mirrorlike ice film” Negative event 
(4); a skier fell because “an avalanche of snow from nearby trees covered 
the visor of her helmet” Negative event (4); athletes were not afraid be¬ 
cause “we just know that we will be stronger than our competitors” Posi¬ 
tive event (16). 

These were among the pessimistic explanations: A disaster came because 
“she is in such bad shape” Negative event (17); “He had to hold back 
tears. His hope for a medal had gone” Negative event (17); an athlete 
succeeded because “our competitors had been drinking all night before” 
Positive event (3). 

But who made the optimistic statements and who made the pessimistic 
ones? The answers were a complete surprise to Gabriele. The East German 
statements were much more pessimistic than the West German ones. What 
made this finding even more remarkable was how well the East Germans 
did in the games. The East Germans won twenty-four medals and the West 
Germans only four. So the East Berlin papers had many more good events 
to report: Indeed, 61 percent of the East’s explanations were about good 
events for the East and only 47 percent of the West’s were about good 
events for the West. Nevertheless, the tone of East Berlin’s reportage was 
much bleaker than that of West Berlin’s. 

“I’m astonished by my results,” Gabriele told me. “As strong as they 
are, I’m not going to believe them until I find some other way to see if 
East Berliners are more pessimistic and depressed than West Berliners. 
I’ve tried getting accurate suicide and hospital statistics from East Berlin 
to compare to West Berlin, but of course, I can’t get them.” 

Gabriele’s Ph.D. was not in psychology but in human ethology, a branch 
of biology that deals with observing people in the natural environment and 
noting in great detail what they do. It started with Konrad Lorenz’s ob¬ 
servations of ducklings that had “imprinted” on him and then followed 
him around—they had formed the conviction that he was their mother. 
His careful observations of nature soon branched out to systematic people¬ 
watching. Gabriele had earned her degree under the two leading successors 
of Lorenz. I knew Gabriele had done a lot of minute observations in 
classrooms full of kids, but I was apprehensive when she told me what she 
was going to do in the bars of East and West Berlin. 

“The only way I can think of to get converging support for my CAVE 
findings,” she wrote, “is to go to East Berlin and rigorously count the signs 
of despair and then compare them to the same settings in West Berlin. I 
don’t want to arouse police suspicions, so I’m going to do it in bars.” 

This is exactly what she did. In the winter of 1985, she went to thirty- 
one bars in industrial areas. She chose fourteen in West Berlin and sev¬ 
enteen in East Berlin. These bars, called Kneipen , are where workmen go 



to drink after work. They were located near each other, separated only by 
the Wall. She did all the observations in the five weekdays of one week. 

She would enter a bar and take a seat in a far comer, as inconspicuously 
as she could. She then focused on groups of patrons and counted what 
they were doing in five-minute blocks. She counted everything observable 
that the literature considers related to depression: smiles, laughs, posture, 
vigorous hand movements, small movements like biting one's nails. 

Measured this way, the East Berliners were once again much more 
depressed than the West Berliners. Sixty-nine percent of West Berliners 
smiled, but only 23 percent of East Berliners. Fifty percent of West Ber¬ 
liners sat or stood upright, but only 4 percent (!) of East Berliners. Eighty 
percent of West Berlin workmen had their bodies in an open posture— 
turned toward others—but only 7 percent (!) of the East Berliners did. 
West Berliners laughed two and a half times as often as East Berliners. 

These large effects show that East Berliners display much more despair— 
as measured both by words and by body language—than West Berliners 
do. The findings do not show, however, exactly what causes this difference. 
Clearly, since the two cultures were one until 1945, the findings say some¬ 
thing about the amount of hope engendered by two different political 
systems. But they do not isolate which aspect of the two systems is re¬ 
sponsible for increased or decreased hope. It could be the difference in 
standard of living, or the difference in freedom of expression or of travel. 
It could even be the difference in books, music, or food. 

These findings also fail to tell us whether East Berliners became less 
hopeful with the advent of the Communist regime and the building of the 
Wall, or West Berliners have become more hopeful since 1945. All we 
know is that there is now a difference, with the East showing more despair 
than the West. But we are working on “CAVEing” the newspaper re¬ 
porting of every winter Olympics since World War II. That will tell us how 
hope in East and West Berlin has changed over time.* 

These findings also show us something else: that there exists a new 
method for measuring the quantity of hope and despair across cultures. 
This method allowed Gabriele Oettingen to compare what other scientists 
thought were incomparable. 

* As I edit this manuscript (April 1990), I And myself wondering to what extent the 
explanatory style of the East Germans over the last few momentous months has changed. 
The theory asserts that rebuilding and prosperity will depend in part on explanatory style. 
If it has now become optimistic, the future of East Germany will be bright. If it has remained 
as dark as it was m 1984, economic and spiritual recovery will be much slower than generally 
expected. A forecast: the changes in explanatory style of East Germany, Czechoslovakia, 
Romania, Poland, Hungary, and Bulgaria should predict how successfully these nations will 
exploit their newly won freedom. 

Politics , Religion and Culture: A New Psychohistory 


Religion and Optimism 

It is often thought that religion produces hope and allows troubled 
people to better face the trials of this world. Organized religion provides 
a belief that there is more good to life than meets the eye. Failures of 
individuals are buffered by belief in being part of a much larger whole: 
Buffering takes place whether the hope is as concrete as a golden afterlife 
or as abstract as being part of God’s plan or just part of the continuity of 
evolution. Findings on depression bear this out. Conducting studies in the 
Outer Hebrides, George Brown, the London sociologist who has made a 
life’s work out of interviewing depressed housewives, has shown that 
staunch churchgoers experience less depression than nonchurchgoers. 

But do certain religions provide more hope than others? This question 
arose in 1986, when Gabriele came to the University of Pennsylvania as a 
postdoctoral fellow of the Mac Arthur Foundation and of the German Na¬ 
tional Science Foundation. Comparing two religions should in principle be 
just like comparing hope and despair across two cultures, Gabriele argued. 
The trick would be to find two religions as closely related in time and place 
as East and West Berlin. 

This is where the question hung until we encountered the fiery Eva 
Morawska, a young sociologist-historian. I invited her to speak to my 
graduate seminar on the topic of helplessness among Russian Jews and 
Russian Slavs in the nineteenth century. Eva presented evidence that the 
Jews were much less helpless in the face of oppression than the Slavs were. 
She posed the question of why, when things got intolerable, the Jews got 
up and left and the Slavs did not. “Both groups,” Eva contended, were 
terribly oppressed. “The peasant Slavs lived under unrelieved, crushing 
poverty, poverty of a degree unknown in this country. The Jews lived in 
poverty and under religious persecution and the threat of pogroms. Yet 
the Jews emigrated and the Slavs stayed. 

“Perhaps the Russian Orthodox Slavs felt more helpless and hopeless 
than the Jews,” said Eva. “Maybe the two religions inculcated different 
levels of optimism. Could it be that Russian Orthodoxy is a more pessimistic 
religion than Judaism?” 

The two cultures sat side by side in many villages in Russia, so it is 
possible directly to compare the explanatory style of their prayers, their 
fairy tales, and the stories they told. Do the materials that the Slavs and 
the Jews heard every day differ in tone? 

Soon Gabriele and Eva were collaborating. With the help of Russian 
Orthodox priests Eva picked out large samples of religious and secular 



material from the two cultures: the daily liturgy, the high-holy-day liturgy, 
religious stories, folk stories and songs, and proverbs. These were narrated, 
sung, and spontaneously uttered in the daily life of each culture. They 
should have been powerful shapers of explanatory style. Gabriele then 
“CAVEd” all this material. The secular material did not distinguish the 
two cultures, but the religious material did. The religious material of the 
Russian Jews was noticeably more optimistic than the Russian Orthodox 
material, particularly in the permanence dimension. In Jewish material 
positive events were projected further in time—nice things would last 
longer—and negative events were more curtailed. 

Eva and Gabriele showed that Russian Judaism was more optimistic 
than Russian Orthodoxy in its stories and prayers. It remains speculation 
to claim that the cause of the Jews' emigrating and the Slavic peasants' 
staying stemmed from the greater hopefulness absorbed drop by drop from 
the religious messages they heard every day. The causes of a people’s 
emigration are highly complex. But Judaism’s relative optimism is a plau¬ 
sible cause, and one never before proposed. Testing the theory will require 
ingenious historical and psychological investigation. But at least in the 
process of their investigation Gabriele and Eva created a new method for 
comparing the degree of hope that two religions engender. 

Psychohistoiy Revisited 

What used to pass for psychohistory was a far cry from anything Hari 
Selden would have respected. It didn’t predict, it “postdicted,” and in 
doing so it peeked. It reconstructed single lives, not the actions of groups 
of humans. It used questionable psychological principles and no statistical 

In our hands, this has changed. We try to predict events—major ones— 
before they occur. When we postdict, we don’t peek. We do it blindly. 
We try to predict the actions of large groups—the votes of an electorate, 
the emigration of a people. We have built on sound psychological princi¬ 
ples, and we use well-validated statistical tools. 

But it is only a beginning. It does suggest that psychologists of the future 
need not confine themselves to questionable laboratory studies or expensive 
studies of groups over time to test their theories. Historical documents can 
provide a rich testing ground, and predicting the future can offer an even 
more convincing test of theories. 

Hari Selden, we like to think, would have been proud. 

Part Three 


From Pessimism 
to Optimism 

An aged man is but a paltry thing, 

A tattered coat upon a stick, unless 
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing 
For every tatter in its mortal dress ... 

W.B. Yeats 

The Tower (1928) 

“Sailing to Byzantium” 


The Optimistic Life 

Life inflicts the same setbacks and tragedies on the optimist as on 
the pessimist, but the optimist weathers them better. As we have seen, the 
optimist bounces back from defeat, and, with his life somewhat poorer, 
he picks up and starts again. The pessimist gives up and falls into depres¬ 
sion. Because of his resilience, the optimist achieves more at work, at 
school, and on the playing field. The optimist has better physical health 
and may even live longer. Americans want optimists to lead them. Even 
when things go well for the pessimist, he is haunted by forebodings of 

For pessimists, that is the bad news. The good news is that pessimists 
can learn the skills of optimism and permanently improve the quality of 
their lives. Even optimists can benefit from learning how to change. Almost 
all optimists have periods of at least mild pessimism, and the techniques 
that benefit pessimists can be used by optimists when they are down. 

Giving up pessimism and becoming more optimistic may seem undesir¬ 
able to some of you. Your image of an optimist may be the crashing bore, 
the self-aggrandizing braggart, the chronic blamer of others, never taking 
responsibility for his own mistakes. But neither optimism nor pessimism 
has a comer on bad manners. As you will see from this chapter, becoming 
an optimist consists not of learning to be more selfish and self-assertive, 
and to present yourself to others in overbearing ways, but simply of learning 
a set of skills about how to talk to yourself when you suffer a personal 
defeat. You will leam to speak to yourself about your setbacks from a 
more encouraging viewpoint. 

There is one other reason why learning the skills of optimism may seem 


changing: from pessimism to optimism 

undesirable to you. In chapter six we looked at a balance sheet that weighed 
optimism against pessimism. While optimism had the virtues recapped in 
the opening of this chapter, pessimism had one virtue: supporting a keener 
sense of reality. Does learning the skills of optimism mean sacrificing 

This is a deep question which puts the goal of these “changing” chapters 
into sharper focus. They don’t purvey an absolute, unconditional optimism 
for you to apply blindly in all situations; they offer a flexible optimism. 
They aim to increase your control over the way you think about adversity. 
If you have a negative explanatory style, you no longer need to live under 
the tyranny of pessimism. When bad events strike, you don’t have to look 
at them in their most permanent, pervasive, and personal light, with the 
crippling results that pessimistic explanatory style entails. These chapters 
will give you a choice about how to look at your misfortunes—and an 
alternative that doesn’t require you to become a slave to blind optimism. 

Guidelines for Using Optimism 

Your score on the test in chapter three is the main way to tell whether 
or not you need to acquire these skills. If your G-B score (your total 
score) was less than 8, you will benefit from these chapters. The lower it 
was, the more benefit you will derive. Even if your score was 8 or above, 
you should ask yourself the following questions; if the answer to any of 
them is yes, you too can make good use of these chapters. 

• “Do I get discouraged easily?” 

• “Do I get depressed more than I want to?” 

• “Do I fail more than I think I should?” 

In what situations should you deploy the explanatory style-changing 
skills these chapters provide? First, ask yourself what you are trying to 

• If you are in an achievement situation (getting a promotion, selling 

a product, writing a difficult report, winning a game), use 

• If you are concerned about how you will feel (fighting off depression, 

keeping up your morale), use optimism. 

The Optimistic Life 


• If the situation is apt to be protracted and your physical health is 

an issue, use optimism. 

• If you want to lead, if you want to inspire others, if you want people 

to vote for you, use optimism. 

On the other hand, there are times not to use these techniques. 

• If your goal is to plan for a risky and uncertain future, do not use 


• If your goal is to counsel others whose future is dim, do not use 

optimism initially. 

• If you want to appear sympathetic to the troubles of others, do not 

begin with optimism, although using it later, once confidence and 

empathy are established, may help. 

The fundamental guideline for not deploying optimism is to ask what 
the cost of failure is in the particular situation. If the cost of failure is high, 
optimism is the wrong strategy. The pilot in the cockpit deciding whether 
to de-ice the plane one more time, the partygoer deciding whether to drive 
home after drinking, the frustrated spouse deciding whether to start an 
affair that, should it come to light, would break up the marriage should 
not use optimism. Here the costs of failure are, respectively, death, an 
auto accident, and a divorce. Using techniques that minimize those costs 
is inappropriate. On the other hand, if the cost of failure is low, use 
optimism. The sales agent deciding whether to make one more call loses 
only his time if he fails. The shy person deciding whether to attempt to 
open a conversation risks only rejection. The teenager contemplating learn¬ 
ing a new sport risks only frustration. The disgruntled executive, passed 
over for promotion, risks only some refusals if he quietly puts out feelers 
for a new position. All should use optimism. 

This chapter teaches you the basic principles of changing from pessimism 
to optimism in your daily life. Unlike the techniques of almost all other 
self-help formulas—which consist of a gallon of clinical lore but only a 
teaspoonful of research—these have been thoroughly researched, and thou¬ 
sands of adults have used them to change their explanatory style 

I have organized the three “changing” chapters so that each stands on 
its own. This one is for use in all the realms of adult life, except the office. 
The second is for your children. The third is for your work. Each uses 
essentially the same techniques of learned optimism in a different setting, 
and so the chapters may seem to repeat each other somewhat. If you are 


changing: from pessimism to optimism 

interested in only one of these topics, it is not absolutely necessary to read 
the other two chapters. 

The ABCs 

Katie has been on a strict diet for two weeks. Tonight after work she 
goes out for drinks with some friends and eats some of the nachos and 
chicken wings the others ordered. Immediately afterward she feels she has 
“ruined” her diet. 

She thinks to herself, “Way to go, Katie. You sure blew your diet tonight. 
I am so unbelievably weak. I can’t even go to a bar with some friends 
without making a total glutton of myself. They must think I’m such a fool. 
Well, all my dieting over the last two weeks is blown now, so I might as 
well really make a pig of myself and eat the cake in the freezer.” 

Katie breaks out the Sara Lee and eats a whole chocolate fudge brownie 
delight. Her diet, followed scrupulously until tonight, begins to unravel. 

The connection between Katie’s eating some nachos and chicken 
wings and then really overindulging is not a necessary one. What links 
the two is how she explains to herself why she ate the nachos. Her ex¬ 
planation is very pessimistic: “I am so weak.” So is the conclusion she 
drew: “All my dieting is blown.” In fact, her diet wasn’t blown until she 
came up with a permanent, pervasive, and personal explanation. Then 
she gave up. 

The consequences of the nacho episode would have been very different 
if Katie had merely disputed her own automatic first explanation. 

“Slow down, Katie,” she might have said to herself. “First of all, I did 
not make a total glutton of myself at the bar. I drank two Lite Beers and 
ate a couple of chicken wings and a couple of nachos. I didn’t have dinner, 
so I think on balance I probably consumed only a few more calories than 
my diet allows. And letting my diet slip a bit for just one night does not 
mean I am weak. Think how strong I am in sticking to it so strictly for 
two weeks. Furthermore, no one thinks I’m a fool. I doubt anyone was 
keeping tabs on what I was eating, and in fact, a couple of people men¬ 
tioned I looked slimmer. Most important, even if I did eat some things 
I shouldn’t have, that doesn’t mean that I should continue to break my 
diet and set myself back even further. That makes no sense. The best 
thing to do is cut my losses, let myself off the hook for making a minor 
mistake, and continue dieting as strictly as I have been for the last two 

The Optimistic Life 


It’s a matter of ABC*: When we encounter adversity, we react by think¬ 
ing about it. Our thoughts rapidly congeal into beliefs. These beliefs may 
become so habitual we don’t even realize we have them unless we stop 
and focus on them. And they don’t just sit there idly; they have conse¬ 
quences. The beliefs are the direct causes of what we feel and what we do 
next. They can spell the difference between dejection and giving up, on 
the one hand, and well-being and constructive action on the other. 

We have seen throughout this book that certain kinds of beliefs set off 
the giving-up response. I am now going to teach you how to interrupt this 
vicious circle. The first step is to see the connection between adversity, 
belief, and consequence. The second step is to see how the ABCs operate 
every day in your own life. These techniques are part of a course developed 
by two of the world’s leading cognitive therapists—Dr. Steven Hollon, 
professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University and editor of the major 
journal in the field, and Dr. Arthur Freeman, professor of psychiatry at 
the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey—along with my¬ 
self, to change explanatory style among normal people. 

I want you now to identify some ABCs so you can see how they work. 
I’ll supply the adversity, along with either the belief or the consequence. 
You fill in the missing component. 

Identifying ABCs 

1. A. Someone zips into the parking space you had your eye on. 

B. You think__ 

C. You get angry, roll down your window, and shout at the other 

2. A. You yell at your children for not doing their homework. 

B. You think “I’m a lousy mother.” 

C. You feel (or do)_ 

* In the “changing” chapters, I use the schema of the ABC model developed by pioneering 
psychologist Albert Ellis. 


changing: from pessimism to optimism 

3. A. Your best friend hasn't returned your phone calls. 

B. You think_ 

C. You’re depressed all day. 

4. A. Your best friend hasn’t returned your phone calls. 

B. You think_ 

C. You don’t feel bad about it, and go about your day. 

5. A. You and your spouse have a fight. 

B. You think “I never do anything right.” 

C. You feel (or do)_ 

6. A. You and your spouse have a fight. 

B. You think, “She [He] was in an awful mood.” 

C. You feel (or do)_ 

7. A. You and your spouse have a fight. 

B. You think, “I can always clear up misunderstandings.” 

C. You feel (or do)_ 

Now, let’s take a look at these seven situations and see how the elements 

1. In the first example, thoughts of trespass set off your anger. “That 
driver stole my place.” “That was a rude and selfish thing to do.” 

2. When you explained your treatment of your children with “I’m a lousy 
mother,” sadness and a reluctance to try to get them to do their homework 
followed. When we explain bad events as the result of permanent, per¬ 
vasive, and personal traits like being a lousy mother, dejection and giving 
up follow. The more permanent the trait, the longer dejection will last. 

3 and 4. You can see this when your best friend doesn’t return your 
phone calls. If, as in the third example, you thought something permanent 
and pervasive—such as “I’m always selfish and inconsiderate. No won¬ 
der”—depression would follow. But if, as in the fourth example, your 
explanation was temporary, specific, and external, you wouldn’t be dis¬ 
turbed. “She’s working overtime this week,” you might say to yourself, 
or “She’s in a funk.” 

The Optimistic Life 


5, 6, and 7. How about when you and your spouse have a fight? If, as 
in example 5, you think “I never do anything right” (permanent, pervasive, 
personal), you will be depressed and not try to do anything to heal the 
breach. If, as in example 6, you think “She was in an awful mood” (tem¬ 
porary and external), you will feel some anger, a little dejection, and only 
temporary immobility. When the mood clears, you’ll probably do some¬ 
thing to make up. If, as in example 7, you think “I can always clear up 
misunderstandings,” you will act to make up and you soon will feel pretty 
good and full of energy. 

Your ABC Record 

To find out how these ABCs operate in daily existence, keep an ABC 
diary for the next day or two, just long enough for you to record five ABCs 
from your own life. 

To do this, tune in on the perpetual dialogue that takes place in your 
mind and that you are usually unaware of. It’s a matter of picking up the 
connection between a certain adversity—even a very minor one—and a 
consequent feeling. So, for example, you are talking to a friend on the 
phone. She seems very eager to get off the phone (a distressing minor 
adversity for you), and you then find yourself sad (the consequent feeling). 
This little episode will become an ABC entry for you. 

There are three parts to your record. 

The first section, “Adversity,” can be almost anything—a leaky faucet, 
a frown from a friend, a baby that won’t stop crying, a large bill, inatten¬ 
tiveness from your spouse. Be objective about the situation. Record your 
description of what happened, not your evaluation of it. So if you had an 
argument with your spouse, you might write down that she was unhappy 
with something you said or did. Record that. But do not record “She was 
unfair” under “Adversity.” That’s an inference, and you may want to 
record that in the second section: “Belief.” 

Your beliefs are how you interpret the adversity. Be sure to separate 
thoughts from feelings. (Feelings will go under “Consequences.”) “I just 
blew my diet” and “I feel incompetent” are beliefs. Their accuracy can be 
evaluated. “I feel sad,” however, expresses a feeling. It doesn’t make sense 
to check the accuracy of “I feel sad”; if you feel sad, you are sad. 

“Consequences.” In this section, record your feelings and what you did. 
Did you feel sad, anxious, joyful, guilty, or whatever? Often you will feel 
more than one thing. Write down as many feelings and actions as you were 


changing: from pessimism to optimism 

aware of. What did you then do? “I had no energy,” “I made a plan to 
get her to apologize,” “I went back to bed” are all consequent actions. 

Before you start, here are some helpful examples of the sort of thing 
you may experience. 

Adversity: My husband was supposed to give the kids their bath and 
put them to bed, but when I got home from my meeting they were 
all glued to the TV. 

Belief: Why can’t he do what I ask him? Is it such a hard thing to 
give them their bath and put them to bed? Now I’m going to look like 
the heavy when I break up their little party. 

Consequences: I was really angry with Jack and started yelling with¬ 
out first giving him a chance to explain. I walked into the room and 
snapped off the set without even a “hello” first. I looked like the 

Adversity: I came home early from work and found my son and his 
friends in the garage smoking pot. 

Belief: What does he think he’s doing? I’m going to strangle him! 
This just goes to show how irresponsible he is. I can’t trust him at all. 
Everything out of his mouth is just one lie after another. Well, I’m 
not going to listen to any of it. 

Consequences: I was out-of-my-mind angry at him. I refused even 
to discuss the situation. I told him he was “an untrustworthy little 
delinquent,” and I spent the rest of the evening fuming. 

Adversity: I called up a man I was interested in and invited him to 
a show. He said he would have to take a rain check because he needed 
to prepare for a meeting. 

Belief: Right, what an excuse. He was just trying to spare my feel¬ 
ings. The truth is he doesn’t want to have anything to do with me. 
What did I expect? I’m too assertive for him. That’s the last time I’ll 
ever ask someone out. 

Consequences: I felt stupid, embarrassed and ugly. Instead of in¬ 
viting someone else to go to the show with me, I decided to give the 
tickets to friends. 

Adversity: I decided to join a gym, and when I walked into the place 
I saw nothing but firm, toned bodies all around me. 

Belief: What am I doing here? I look like a beached whale compared 

The Optimistic Life 


to these people! I should get out of here while I still have my dignity. 

Consequences: I felt totally self-conscious and ended up leaving after 
fifteen minutes. 

It's your turn now. Over the next couple of days, record five ABC 
sequences from your life. 









changing: from pessimism to optimism 









When you have recorded your five ABC episodes, read them over care- 
fully. Look for the link between your belief and the consequences. What 
you will see is that pessimistic explanations set off passivity and dejection, 
whereas optimistic explanations energize. 

The Optimistic Life 


The next step follows immediately: If you change the habitual beliefs 
that follow adversity for you, your reaction to adversity will change in 
lockstep. There are highly reliable ways to change. 

Disputation and Distraction 

There are two general ways for you to deal with your pessimistic 
beliefs once you are aware of them. The first is simply to distract yourself 
when they occur—try to think of something else. The second is to dispute 
them. Disputing is more effective in the long run, because successfully 
disputed beliefs are less likely to recur when the same situation presents 
itself again. 

Human beings are wired to think about things, bad and good, that attract 
our attention and place demands on us. This makes a great deal of evo¬ 
lutionary sense. We wouldn’t live very long if we didn’t recognize dangers 
and needs straight off and if we weren’t primed to worry about how to 
deal with them. Habitual pessimistic thoughts merely carry this useful 
process one detrimental step further. They not only grab our attention; 
they circle unceasingly through our minds. By their very nature they will 
not allow themselves to be forgotten. They are primitive, biological re¬ 
minders of needs and of dangers. While evolution seems to have made 
prepubescent children irrepressible optimists, it has also assured that adults 
who worried and planned were more likely to survive and have children 
and have these children survive. But in modern life, these primitive re¬ 
minders can get in our way, subverting our performance and spoiling the 
quality of our emotional life. 

Let’s examine the difference between distraction and disputation. 


I want you now not to think about a piece of apple pie with vanilla ice 
cream. The pie is heated and the ice cream forms a delightful contrast in 
taste and temperature. 

You probably find that you have almost no capacity to refrain from 
thinking about the pie. But you do have the capacity to redeploy your 

Think about the pie again. Got it. Mouth-watering? Now stand up and 
slam the palm of your hand against the wall and shout “STOP!” 

2 I 8 

changing: from pessimism to optimism 

The image of the pie disappeared, didn’t it? 

This is one of several simple but highly effective thought-stopping tech¬ 
niques used by people who are trying to interrupt habitual thought patterns. 
Some people ring a loud bell, others carry a three-by-five card with the word 
STOP in enormous red letters. Many people find it works well to wear a 
rubber band around their wrists and snap it hard to stop their ruminating. 

If you combine one of these physical techniques with a technique called 
attention shifting, you will get longer-lasting results. To keep your thoughts 
from returning to a negative belief after interruption (by snapping a rubber 
band or whatever), now direct your attention elsewhere. Actors do this 
when they must suddenly switch from one emotion to another. Try this: 
Pick up a small object and study it intently for a few seconds. Handle it, 
put it in your mouth and taste it, smell it, tap it to see how it sounds. 
You’ll find that concentrating on the object this way will have strengthened 
your shift in attention. 

Finally, you can undercut ruminations by taking advantage of their very 
nature. Their nature is to circle around in your mind, so that you will not 
forget them, so that you will act on them. When adversity strikes, schedule 
some time—later—for thinking things over . . .say, this evening at six p.m. 
Now, when something disturbing happens and you find the thoughts hard 
to stop, you can say to yourself, “Stop. I’ll think this over later ... at 
[such and such a time].’’ 

Also, write the troublesome thoughts down the moment they occur. The 
combination of jotting them down—which acts to ventilate them and dis¬ 
pose of them—and setting a later time to think about them works well; it 
takes advantage of the reason ruminations exist—to remind you of them¬ 
selves—and so undercuts them. If you write them down and set a time to 
think about them, they no longer have any purpose, and purposelessness 
lessens their strength. 


Ducking our disturbing beliefs can be good first aid, but a deeper, more 
lasting remedy is to dispute them: Give them an argument. Go on the 
attack. By effectively disputing the beliefs that follow adversity, you can 
change your customary reaction from dejection and giving up to activity 
and good cheer. 

Adversity: I recently started taking night classes after work for a 
master’s degree. I got my first set of exams back and I didn’t do nearly 
as well as I wanted. 

The Optimistic Life 


Belief: What awful grades, Judy. I no doubt did the worst in the 
class. I’m just stupid. That’s all. I might as well face facts. I’m also 
just too old to be competing with these kids. Even if I stick with it, 
who is going to hire a forty-year-old woman when they can hire a 
twenty-three-year-old instead? What was I thinking when I enrolled? 
It’s just too late for me. 

Consequences: I felt totally dejected and useless. I was embarrassed 
I even gave it a try, and decided I should withdraw from my courses 
and be satisfied with the job I have. 

Disputation: I’m blowing things out of proportion. I hoped to get 
all As, but I got a B, a B +, and a B -. Those aren’t awful grades. I 
may not have done the best in the class, but I didn’t do the worst in 
the class either. I checked. The guy next to me had two Cs and a D +. 
The reason I didn’t do as well as I hoped isn’t because of my age. The 
fact that I am forty doesn’t make me any less intelligent than anyone 
else in the class. One reason I may not have done as well is because 
I have a lot of other things going on in my life that take time away 
from my studies. I have a full-time job. I have a family. I think that 
given my situation I did a good job on my exams. Now that I took 
this set of exams I know how much work I need to put into my studies 
in the future in order to do even better. Now is not the time to worry 
about who will hire me. Almost everyone who graduates from this 
program gets a decent job. For now I need to concern myself with 
learning the material and earning my degree. Then when I graduate 
I can focus on finding a better job. 

Outcome: I felt much better about myself and my exams. I’m not 
going to withdraw from my courses, and I am not going to let my age 
stand in the way of getting what I want. I’m still concerned that my 
age may be a disadvantage, but I will cross that bridge if and when I 
come to it. 

Judy effectively disputed her beliefs about her grades. By doing so she 
changed her feelings from despair into hope and her course of action from 
withdrawal into plunging ahead. Judy knows some techniques that you are 
about to learn. 


It is essential to realize your beliefs are just that—beliefs. They may 
or may not be facts. If a jealous rival shrieked at you in a rage, “You are 
a terrible mother. You are selfish, inconsiderate, and stupid,” how would 


changing: from pessimism to optimism 

you react? You probably wouldn’t take the accusations much into account. 
If they got under your skin, you would dispute them (either to her face or 
to yourself). “My kids love me,’’ you might say. “I spend ungodly amounts 
of time with them. I teach them algebra, football, and how to get on in a 
tough world. Anyway she’s just jealous because her kids have turned out 
so poorly.’’ 

We can more or less easily distance ourselves from the unfounded ac¬ 
cusations of others. But we are much worse at distancing ourselves from 
the accusations that we launch—daily—at ourselves. After all, if we think 
them about ourselves, they must be true. 


What we say to ourselves when we face a setback can be just as baseless 
as the ravings of a jealous rival. Our reflexive explanations are usually 
distortions. They are mere bad habits of thought produced by unpleasant 
experiences in the past—by childhood conflicts, by strict parents, by an 
overly critical Little League coach, by a big sister’s jealousy. But because 
they seem to issue from ourselves, we treat them as gospel. 

They are merely beliefs, however. And just believing something doesn’t 
make it so. Just because a person fears that he is unemployable, unlovable, 
or inadequate doesn’t mean it’s true. It is essential to stand back and 
suspend belief for a moment, to distance yourself from our pessimistic 
explanations at least long enough to verify their accuracy. Checking out 
the accuracy of our reflexive beliefs is what disputation is all about. 

The first step is just knowing your beliefs warrant dispute. The next step 
is putting disputation into practice. 

Learning to Argue with Yourself 

Fortunately, you already have a lifetime of experience in disputation. 
You use this skill whenever you argue with other people. Once you get 
started disputing your own unfounded accusations about yourself, your old 
skills will kick in for use in this new project. 

There are four important ways to make your disputations convincing. 

• Evidence? 

• Alternatives? 

• Implications? 

• Usefulness? 

The Optimistic Life 



The most convincing way of disputing a negative belief is to show 
that it is factually incorrect. Much of the time you will have facts on your 
side, since pessimistic reactions to adversity are so often overreactions. 
You adopt the role of a detective and ask, “What is the evidence for this 

Judy did this. She believed that her “awful” grades were the “worst in 
the class.” She checked the evidence. The person sitting next to her had 
much lower grades. 

Katie, who allegedly “blew” her diet, could count up the calories in the 
nachos, the chicken wings, and the Lite Beers and find that they came to 
little more than the dinner she skipped to go out with her friends. 

It is important to see the difference between this approach and the so* 
called “power of positive thinking.” Positive thinking often involves trying 
to believe upbeat statements such as “Every day, in every way, I’m getting 
better and better” in the absence of evidence, or even in the face of contrary 
evidence. If you can actually believe such statements, more power to you. 
Many educated people, trained in skeptical thinking, cannot manage this 
kind of boostensm. Learned optimism, in contrast, is about accuracy. 

We have found that merely repeating positive statements to yourself 
does not raise mood or achievement very much, if at all. It is how you 
cope with negative statements that has an effect. Usually the negative 
beliefs that follow adversity are inaccurate. Most people catastrophize: 
From all the potential causes, they select the one with the direst implica* 
tions. One of your most effective techniques in disputation will be to search 
for evidence pointing to the distortions in your catastrophic explanations. 
Most of the time you will have reality on your side. 

Learned optimism works not through an unjustifiable positivity about the 
world but through the power of “non-negative” thinking . 


Almost nothing that happens to you has just one cause; most events 
have many causes. If you did poorly on a test, all of the following might have 
contributed: how hard the test was, how much you studied, how smart you 
are, how fair the professor is, how the other students did, how tired you 
were. Pessimists have a way of latching onto the worst of all these 



possible causes—the most permanent, pervasive, and personal one. Judy 
picked “I’m too old to be competing with these kids.” 

Here again, disputation usually has reality on its side. There are multiple 
causes, so why latch onto the most insidious one? Ask yourself, “Is there 
any less destructive way to look at this?” Judy, an experienced self-disputer, 
easily found that there was: “I have a full-time job and I have a family.” 
Katie, who also became an ace self-disputer, could change “weakness” 
into “Look at how strong I am in keeping at this diet so strictly for two 
whole weeks.” 

To dispute your own beliefs, scan for all possible contributing causes. 
Focus on the changeable (not enough time spent studying), the specific (this 
particular exam was uncharacteristically hard) and the nonpersonal (the 
professor graded unfairly) causes. You may have to push hard at generating 
alternative beliefs, latching onto possibilities you are not fully convinced 
are true. Remember that much of pessimistic thinking consists in just the 
reverse, latching onto the most dire possible belief, not because the evi¬ 
dence supports it, but precisely because it is so dire. Your job is to undo 
this destructive habit by becoming skilled at generating alternatives. 


Butthe way things go in this world, the facts won’t always be on your 
side. The negative belief you hold about yourself may be correct. In this 
situation, the technique to use is decatastrophizing. 

Even if my belief is correct, you say to yourself, what are its implications? 
Judy was older than the rest of the students. But what does that imply? It 
doesn’t mean that Judy is any less intelligent than they are, and it doesn’t 
mean that nobody would want to hire her. Katie’s breaking her diet doesn’t 
imply she’s a total glutton, it doesn’t imply she’s a fool, and it certainly 
doesn’t mean she should let her diet unravel completely. 

How likely, you should ask yourself, are those awful implications? How 
likely is it that three Bs mean no one will ever hire Judy? Do a couple 
of chicken wings and nachos really mean Katie is a total glutton? Once 
you ask if the implications are really that awful, repeat the search for 
evidence. Katie remembered the evidence that she had stuck to a strict 
diet for two whole weeks—so she was hardly a total glutton. Judy remem¬ 
bered that almost everyone who got a master’s degree from her program 
got a decent job. 

The Optimistic Life 



Sometimes the consequences of holding a belief matter more than the 
truth of the belief. Is the belief destructive? Katie’s belief in her gluttony, 
even if true, is destructive. It is a recipe for letting go of her diet completely. 

Some people get very upset when the world shows itself not to be fair. 
We can sympathize with that sentiment, but the belief that the world should 
be fair may cause more grief than it’s worth. What good will it do me to 
dwell on that? At times it is very useful, instead, to get on with your day, 
without taking the time to examine the accuracy of your beliefs and then 
disputing them. For example, a technician doing bomb demolition might 
find himself thinking, “This could go off and I might be killed”—with the 
result that his hands start to shake. In this case I would recommend dis¬ 
traction over disputation. Whenever you simply have to perform now, you 
will find distraction the tool of choice. At this moment the question to ask 
yourself is not “Is the belief true?” but “Is it functional for me to think it 
right now?” If the answer is no, use the distraction techniques. (Stop! 
Assign a later worry time. Make a written note of the thought.) 

Another tactic is to detail all the ways you can change the situation in 
the future. Even if the belief is true now, is the situation changeable? How 
can you go about changing it? 

Your Disputatim Record 

Now I want you to practice the ABCDE model. You already know what 
ABC stands for. D is for disputation; E is for energization. 

During the next five adverse events you face, listen closely for your 
beliefs, observe the consequences, and dispute your beliefs vigorously. 
Then observe the energization that occurs as you succeed in dealing with 
the negative beliefs, and record all of this. These five adverse events can 
be minor: The mail is late; your call isn’t returned; the kid pumping gas 
doesn’t wash the windshield. In each of these, use the four techniques of 
effective self-disputation. 

Before you start, study the examples below. 

Adversity: I borrowed a pair of really expensive earrings from my 
friend, and I lost one of them while I was out dancing. 


changing: from pessimism to optimism 

Belief: I am so irresponsible. They were Kay’s favorite earrings, 
and of course I go and lose one. She is going to be so absolutely furious 
at me. Not that she doesn’t have every reason. If I were her. I’d hate 
me too. I just can’t believe how much of a klutz I am. I wouldn’t be 
surprised if she told me she didn’t want to have anything to do with 
me anymore. 

Consequences: I felt totally sick. I was ashamed and embarrassed, 
and I didn’t want to call and tell her what happened. Basically, I just 
sat around feeling stupid for a while, trying to muster up the guts to 
call her. 

Disputation: Well, it is really unfortunate that I lost the earring. 
They were Kay’s favorites [evidence] and she probably will be very 
disappointed [implication]. However, she will realize it was an accident 
[alternative], and I seriously doubt she will hate me because of this 
[implication]. I don’t think it’s accurate to label myself as totally ir¬ 
responsible just because I lost an earring [implication]. 

Energization: I still felt bad about losing her earring, but I didn’t 
feel nearly as ashamed, and I wasn’t worried that she would end the 
friendship over it. I was able to relax and call her to explain. 

Here’s one you saw the first half of before. 

Adversity: I came home early from work and found my son and his 
friends hanging out in the garage smoking pot. 

Belief: What does he think he’s doing? I’m going to strangle him! 
This just goes to show how irresponsible he is. I can’t trust him at all. 
Everything out of his mouth is just one lie after another. Well, I’m 
not going to listen to any of it. 

Consequences: I was out-of-my-mind angry at him. I refused even 
to discuss the situation. I told him he was “an untrustworthy little 
delinquent,” and I spent the rest of the evening fuming. 

But here’s how an ace disputer would conclude this internal dialogue: 

Disputation: Okay, it is definitely true Joshua is irresponsible to 
smoke pot, but this doesn’t mean he is totally irresponsible and un¬ 
trustworthy [implications]. He has never cut school or stayed out 
late without calling, and he has been good about doing his share 
around the house [evidence]. This is a very serious situation, but it is 
not helpful to assume that everything he says is a lie [usefulness]. 
Our communication in the past has been okay, and I think if I re- 

The Optimistic Life 


main calm now, things will go better [usefulness]. If I am not willing 
to discuss the situation with Joshua, things cannot be resolved [use¬ 

Energization: I was able to settle down and begin to handle the 
situation. I began by apologizing for calling him “untrustworthy,” and 
I told him we needed to talk about his smoking pot. The conversation 
did get fairly heated at times, but at least we were talking. 

Adversity: I threw a dinner party for a group of friends, and the 
person I was trying to impress barely touched her food. 

Belief: The food tastes putrid. I am such a lousy cook. I might as 
well forget getting to know her any better. I’m lucky she didn’t get 
up and leave in the middle of dinner. 

Consequences: I felt really disappointed and angry at myself. I was 
so embarrassed about my cooking that I wanted to avoid her for the 
rest of the night. Obviously, things weren’t going as I had hoped. 

Disputation: This is ridiculous. I know the food doesn’t taste putrid 
[evidence]. She may not have eaten very much but everyone else 
did [evidence]. There could be a hundred reasons why she didn’t 
eat much [alternatives]. She could be on a diet, she might not have 
been feeling great, she might just have a small appetite [alternatives]. 
Even though she didn’t eat much, she did seem to enjoy the dinner 
[evidence]. She told some funny stories, and she seemed to be re¬ 
laxed [evidence]. She even offered to help me with the dishes [evi¬ 
dence]. She wouldn’t have done that if she was repulsed by me 

Energization: I didn’t feel nearly as embarrassed or angry, and I 
realized that if I avoided her, then I really would hurt my chances of 
getting to know her better. Basically, I was able to relax and not let 
my imagination ruin the evening for me. 

Now you do it, in your daily life over the next week. Don’t search out 
adversity, but as it comes along, tune in carefully to your internal dialogue. 
When you hear the negative beliefs, dispute them. Beat them into the 
ground. Then record the ABCDE. 



changing: from pessimism to optimism 









The Optimistic Life 












changing: from pessimism to optimism 








The Extemalization of Voices 

In order to practice disputation, you don’t have to wait for adversity to 
strike. You can have a friend provide the negative beliefs for you out loud, 
and then you dispute his accusations, also out loud. This exercise is called 

The Optimistic Life 


“extemalization of voices.” To do it, choose a friend (your spouse might 
do fine) and set aside twenty minutes. Your friend’s job is to criticize you. 
For this reason, you have to choose your friend carefully. Choose someone 
you trust with your feelings and around whom you don’t get defensive. 

Explain to your friend that in this situation it is all right to criticize you: 
You won’t take it personally because this is an exercise to strengthen the 
way you dispute such criticisms when you make them to yourself. Help 
your friend choose the right kinds of criticisms by going over your ABC 
record with him, pointing out the negative beliefs that afflict you repeat¬ 
edly. With these understandings reached, you’ll find that you don’t, in fact, 
take the criticisms personally when your friend makes them, and that the 
exercise can actually strengthen the bond of sympathy between you and 
your friend. 

Your job is to dispute the criticisms out loud, with all the armaments 
you have. Marshal all the contrary evidence you can find, spell out all the 
alternative explanations, decatastrophize by arguing that the implications 
are not nearly as dire as your friend charges. If you believe the accusation 
is true now, detail all the things you can do to change the situation. Your 
friend can interrupt to dispute your disputing. Then you should reply. 

Before you start, you and your friend should read the following exam¬ 
ples. Each contains a situation that the friend exploits in order to make 
some nasty accusations. (Your friend must be rough on you, because in 
your own explanatory style you’ve been rough on yourself.) 

Situation: While Carol is putting away some clothes in her fifteen- 
year-old daughter’s bedroom, she finds a packet of birth-control pills 
hidden under some clothes. 

Accusation (by friend): How could this be going on without your 
knowing it? She’s only fifteen years old. You weren’t even dating when 
you were fifteen years old. How could you be so blind to what your 
daughter is up to? Your relationship must be completely awful if you 
weren’t even aware that Susan is sexually active. What kind of mother 
are you? 

Disputation: Well, it doesn’t help to compare when I was a teenager 
to Susan’s experiences [usefulness]. Times have changed. It’s a dif¬ 
ferent world these days [alternative]. It’s true that I had no idea that 
Susan was sleeping with someone [evidence], but this doesn’t mean 
our relationship is totally awful [implications]. My discussions with 
her about birth control must have gotten through, because she is on 
the pill [evidence]. That’s a good sign at least. 


changing: from pessimism to optimism 

Friend interrupts: You’re so caught up in your own life and so busy 
with work that you have no idea what is going on in your own daugh¬ 
ter’s life. You’re a rotten mother. 

Disputation continues: I have been preoccupied lately with my work, 
and maybe I haven’t been as in tune with her as I’d like [alternatives], 
but I can change that [usefulness]. Instead of flying off the handle 
about this, or getting down on myself, I can use this situation to reopen 
the lines of communication between us and discuss sex and any con¬ 
cerns she may have [usefulness]. It won’t be easy at first. I expect 
she’ll be a bit defensive, but we can make it work. 

Situation: The pessimist in this case is a man named Doug. He and 
his girlfriend, Barbara, go to a dinner party at a friend’s house. Barbara 
spends part of the evening talking to Nick, a man Doug has never met 
before. In the car on the way home, Doug can’t keep himself from 
remarking bitingly, “You and that guy seemed to have a lot in com¬ 
mon. I haven’t seen you so excited in a long time. I hope you got his 
number—it would be a shame to let that friendship die.’’ Barbara is 
surprised by Doug’s reaction and laughingly tells him he needn’t be 
so insecure; Nick is just a friend from work. 

Accusation (by friend): It was really rude of Barbara to spend the 
whole night talking and laughing with someone else. These were a 
group of her friends, and she knew you’d be the odd man out. 

Disputation: I think I’m overreacting a bit. She didn’t spend the 
entire night talking with Nick [evidence]. We were at the party for 
four hours and she probably spoke to him for forty-five minutes or so 
[evidence]. Just because I had never met a lot of the people before 
doesn’t mean she’s responsible for baby-sitting me [alternative]. She 
did spend the first hour introducing me to her friends, and it wasn’t 
until after dinner that she spent some time alone with Nick [evidence]. 
I guess she feels secure enough about us that she doesn’t have to cling 
to me all the time [alternative]. She knows I can mingle and meet 
people on my own [evidence]. 

Friend interrupts: If she really cared for you, she wouldn’t have 
spent the night flirting with that guy. You obviously care for her more 
than she cares for you. If that’s how she feels, you might as well call 
it quits. 

Disputation continues: I know Barbara loves me [evidence]. We’ve 
been together for a long time, and she has never once mentioned 
splitting up or seeing other people [evidence]. She’s right, I was prob¬ 
ably just feeling a little nervous about meeting so many new people 

The Optimistic Life 


at one time [alternative]. I ought to apologize for being so sarcastic 
with her and explain to her why I reacted as I did [usefulness]. 

Situation: Andrew’s wife, Lori, is an alcoholic. For three years she 
did not touch any alcohol, but recently she has started drinking again. 
Andrew has been trying everything he can to get her to stop: He’s 
tried to reason with her, he’s threatened her, he’s pleaded with her. 
But each night when he comes home from work, Lori is drunk. 

Accusation (by friend): This is awful. You should be able to make 
Lori stop drinking. You should have realized something was bothering 
her way before things got as far as they have. How could you have 
been so blind? Why can’t you make her see what she is doing to 

Disputation: It would be great if I could make Lori stop drinking, 
but that isn’t realistic [evidence]. Last time I went through this with 
her I learned there’s absolutely nothing I can do to make her stop 
[evidence]. Until she decides she wants to get off the bottle, there is 
nothing I can do to make her see what she doesn’t want to see [al¬ 
ternative]. This doesn’t mean I’m helpless in terms of dealing with my 
own feelings about this [implication]. I can start going to a support 
group so that I don’t fall into the trap of blaming myself again 

Friend interrupts: You thought things were good between the two 
of you. I guess you’ve been deluding yourself for the last three years. 
Your marriage must mean nothing to her. 

Disputation continues: Just because Lori has started to drink again, 
that doesn’t totally discount the last three years of our marriage [al¬ 
ternative]. Things were good between us [evidence], and they will get 
better again. This is her problem [alternative], and I just have to keep 
telling myself that, over and over again [usefulness]. She’s not drinking 
because of anything I did or didn’t do [alternative]. The best thing I 
can do right now for both of us is to talk to someone about how this 
is affecting me and what my concerns and worries are [usefulness]. 
It’s going to be a bitch to get through this, but I am willing to give it 
a try. 

Situation: Brenda and her sister Andrea have always been very close. 
They went to the same schools, traveled in the same circles, settled 
down in the same neighborhood. Andrea’s son is a freshman at Dart¬ 
mouth, and both Andrea and Brenda are excited about helping Joey, 
Brenda’s son, start researching the colleges he wants to attend. At the 


changing: from pessimism to optimism 

beginning of his senior year in high school, Joey tells his parents he 
doesn't want to go to college; instead he wants to restore houses and 
work in construction. When Andrea asks Brenda why Joey doesn’t 
want to go to college, Brenda loses control and snaps, “Not that it is 
any of your business, but not everyone has to follow in your son’s 

Accusation (by friend): You ought to be sick and tired of everything 
in your life being an open book to Andrea. She has her own family. 
There is no reason for her to be constantly nosing around in your life. 

Disputation: I think you are overreacting just a wee bit. All Andrea 
did was ask why Joey has decided not to go to college [evidence]. 
That’s a fair question [alternative]. I would feel I could ask her that 
question if the situation were the other way around and it was her 
son, not mine, who’d decided not to go to college [evidence]. 

Friend interrupts: She thinks she is superior to you because her son 
is going to Dartmouth and Joey isn’t. Well, you most certainly don’t 
need that kind of attitude from your sister, so she can just buzz off. 

Disputation continues: She wasn’t acting superior or rubbing my 
face in it; she’s just concerned because she cares about Joey a great 
deal [alternative]. I guess I am feeling defensive about Joey’s decision 
and envious of where Brenda’s son is [alternative]. Actually, I am 
proud of how close Andrea and I are. Sure, every once in a while 
things get competitive, but I wouldn’t trade our closeness for the world 

Situation: Donald is a senior in college. His father died four years 
ago after a long illness. While Donald is home for Christmas, his 
mother tells him she is going to marry Geoff, a man she has been 
seeing for a few months. Donald knew she was involved with Geoff, 
but he is totally surprised by her plans for marriage. When Donald 
does not respond to her announcement, his mother asks him what he 
thinks. Donald explodes with “It is absolutely disgusting that you are 
going to marry that creep’’ and storms out of the house. 

Accusation (by friend): I can’t believe your mom is going to marry 
that guy. She barely knows him, he’s way too old, and he’s totally 
wrong for her. How could she do this to you? 

Disputation: Hold on a second. Are things really as bad as that? 
First of all, I don’t know how well she knows Geoff [evidence]. I’ve 
been away at school all year [evidence]. They’ve only known each 
other a few months, but for all I know they may spend every minute 
together [alternative]. And the stuff about him being too old is silly 

The Optimistic Life 


[evidence]. He’s only ten years older; my dad was thirteen years older 
than Mom [evidence]. 

Friend interrupts: How could she do this to your dad? Your dad 
just died, and already she’s replacing him with someone else. That 
makes me sick. What kind of woman is she that she could do such a 
lousy thing? 

Disputation continues: Mom does seem happier than she has in a 
very long time [evidence]. I guess what’s really bothering me is I still 
miss Dad so much, and I can’t understand how Mom could have gotten 
over him enough to have fallen in love again [alternative]. Maybe I’ll 
talk to her about that. The fact is, Dad has been dead for four years 
[evidence], and whether I like it or not, Mom has to move on [alter¬ 
native]. I don’t want to see her alone. In a way, it’s kind of a relief 
[implications]. Now I don’t have to worry about her being lonely. I 
mean, it’s not that she’s replacing Dad, she’s just found someone else 
who makes her happy [alternative]. I bet Dad would be glad [evi¬ 
dence]. He wouldn’t want her to never feel love again [evidence]. It’s 
just that this came as such a surprise to me [alternative]. I think I’ll 
feel a little better about this once I get to know Geoff [usefulness]. I 
sure hope he’s a good guy. 

Okay. You do it now. 


You should now be well on your way to using disputation, the prime 
technique for learned optimism, in your daily life. You first saw the ABC 
link—that specific beliefs lead to dejection and passivity. Emotions and 
actions do not usually follow adversity directly. Rather they issue directly 
from your beliefs about adversity. This means that if you change your 
mental response to adversity, you can cope with setbacks much better. 

The main tool for changing your interpretations of adversity is dispu¬ 
tation. Practice disputing your automatic interpretations all the time from 
now on. Anytime you find yourself down or anxious or angry, ask what 
you are saying to yourself. Sometimes the beliefs will turn out to be ac¬ 
curate; when this is so, concentrate on the ways you can alter the situation 


changing: from pessimism to optimism 

and prevent adversity from becoming disaster. But usually your negative 
beliefs are distortions. Challenge them. Don’t let them run your emotional 
life. Unlike dieting, learned optimism is easy to maintain once you start. 
Once you get into the habit of disputing negative beliefs, your daily life 
will run much better, and you will feel much happier. 


Helping Your Child Escape Pessimism 

We like to think of childhood as an idyllic time free of the burdens of 
responsibility that descend upon us with age, a sheltered interval before 
life begins in earnest. But, as we have seen in earlier chapters, there is no 
shelter from pessimism and its grim offspring, depression. Many children 
suffer terribly from pessimism, a condition that torments them through 
the years to come, ruining their education and livelihoods, spoiling their 
happiness. School-age children have the same rate and intensity of depres¬ 
sion as adults. Worst of all, pessimism embeds itself as a way of looking 
at the world, and childhood pessimism is the father and mother of adult 

As we noted, some studies indicate children actually learn much of their 
pessimism from their mothers. They also learn pessimism from the criti¬ 
cisms adults make of them. But if children can learn it, they can unlearn 
it, and they do this exactly the same way adults do: by developing more 
sanguine ways of explaining life’s setbacks to themselves. Although the 
ABC techniques have been thoroughly researched and learned by thou¬ 
sands of adults, less research has been done with children, but enough is 
now known to recommend them for your child. It might be said that 
teaching optimism to your children is as important as teaching them to 
work hard or be truthful, for it can have just as profound an impact on 
their later lives. Does your child need to learn the skills of optimism? 

Some parents are a bit reluctant to intervene in the natural course of 
their children’s emotional growth. Your child will probably benefit from 
acquiring these skills, but there are three guidelines for determining if they 
are especially important for your child. 


changing: from pessimism to optimism 

First, what was your child’s score on the CASQ in chapter seven? If 
your girl scored less than 7.0 or your boy scored less than 5.0, she or he 
is twice as likely to experience depression as more optimistic children are, 
and will probably benefit substantially from this chapter. The lower your 
child’s score, the greater the benefit is likely to be. 

Second, what did your child score on the depression test in chapter eight? 
If he scored 10 or higher, he can use these skills. If he scored 16 or higher, 
I believe that his learning these skills is essential. 

Finally, have you and your spouse been fighting, or, more drastic, is 
separation or divorce a possibility? If so, your child is going to need these 
skills urgently. We find that children often become massively depressed at 
such times, and stay depressed for years, with poor school performance 
and a permanent change toward pessimistic explanatory style. Intervention 
right now can be crucial. 

With this chapter you can take your child through the ABC system you 
learned in the previous chapter. If you haven’t yet read that chapter, or 
haven’t read it recently, you should; familiarity with that material will make 
you a better instructor. 

ABCs for Your Child 

Seeing the connection between adversity, belief, and consequences 
is the first step for your child to take in learning optimism. The exercises 
below attempt to teach that connection. They are designed for children 
between the ages of eight and fourteen. Younger children may find them 
difficult, but if you are patient with them and if your child is cerebral 
enough, you can do this with a child as young as seven. Older children, 
full-blown teenagers, should do the adult exercises; they will feel patronized 
by the child examples. 

Teaching optimism to your child benefits both of you. The benefit to 
your child is obvious. But teaching is also the best way of learning some¬ 
thing well yourself. Through teaching these skills to your child, your own 
grasp of them will improve enormously. 

Here’s how to start. Once you have read the previous chapter and done 
the adult exercises, set aside half an hour with your child. First explain 
the ABC model to him. The point you want to get across is that how he 
feels doesn’t just come out of nowhere. Make it clear that what he thinks 
when things go badly actually changes how he feels. When he suddenly 

Helping Your Child Escape Pessimism 


feels sad or angry or afraid or embarrassed, a thought has always triggered 
the feeling. If he can learn to find that thought, he can change it. 

Once the child gets the general drift, work through each of the following 
three examples with him. After each example, have him explain it to you 
in his own words, concentrating on the connection between the beliefs and 
the consequences. After he explains it in his own words, go over the 
questions at the end of each example. 

Adversity: My teacher, Mr. Minner, yelled at me in front of the 
whole class, and everybody laughed. 

Belief : He hates me and now the whole class thinks I’m a jerk. 

Consequences: I felt really sad and I wished that I could just dis¬ 
appear under my desk. 

Ask your child why the boy felt sad. Why did he want to disappear? If 
he had a different belief about Mr. Minner—for example, if he thought, 
“The whole class knows Mr. Minner is unfair”—how would the conse¬ 
quences have been different? Would the class think the boy was a jerk? 

The beliefs are the crucial step to the consequences; when they change, 
the consequences do too. 

Adversity: My best friend, Susan, told me that Joannie was her new 
best friend and from now on she was going to sit with Joannie in the 
cafeteria and not with me. 

Belief: Susan doesn't like me anymore because I'm not cool enough. 
Joannie tells really funny jokes, and whenever I tell a joke nobody 
laughs. And Joannie has really cool clothes, and I dress like a dweeb. 

I bet if I was more popular Susan would still want to be best friends 
with me. Now I'm never going to have anybody to sit with at lunch, 
and everybody is going to know that Joannie is Susan's new best 

Consequences: I was really scared to go to lunch because I didn’t 
want to get laughed at and have to eat by myself, so I pretended to 
have a stomachache, and I asked Miss Frankel to send me to the 
nurse. I also felt really ugly, and I wanted to change schools. 

Why did this girl want to change schools? Was it the fact that Susan was 
going to sit with Joannie? Or was it the belief that she would never have 
anyone to sit with? Why did she feel ugly? What role did her beliefs about 
dressing like a dweeb play? How would the consequences have changed 
if this child believed Susan was a fickle twit? 

2 3 8 

changing: from pessimism to optimism 

Adversity: While I was waiting at the bus stop with my friends a 
bunch of ninth-graders came by and started calling me “Fatso” and 
“Blubber” right in front of all my friends. 

Belief: There’s nothing I can say back, because they’re right, I am 
a fatso. Now all my friends are going to laugh at me, and nobody will 
want to sit with me on the bus. Everybody is going to start teasing 
me and calling me names, and I’m just going to have to take it. 

Consequences: I felt like dying, I was so embarrassed. I wanted to 
run away from my friends, but I didn’t because it was the last bus. So 
I just put my head down and decided to sit by myself in the very first 
seat right by the driver. 

Why did this boy want to run away from his friends? Was it because of 
the fact he was called “Fatso” or the belief that all his friends were now 
going to reject him? Were there other, more constructive beliefs he might 
have entertained—“My friends are loyal,” for example, or “My friends all 
think those ninth-graders are jerks”? What would have happened then? 

Once you see your child grasps the ABC concept, you should end the 
session. When you do, set aside half an hour for tomorrow, in which your 
child will learn to put ABC into practice in his own life. 

In the next session, start by reviewing the adversity-belief-consequences 
link, and work over one of the examples again if necessary. Next, ask him 
for an example from his own life, and write it down. If he needs prompting, 
use one or two ABCs from your own record. 

Now tell him it’s his turn to find ABCs in his daily life. His assignment 
for the next few days is to bring home one example and discuss it with 
you. Each day after school, record and discuss the example. Emphasize 
how sadness, anger, fear, and giving up are all produced by his beliefs, 
and hint broadly that these beliefs are not inevitable or unchangeable. He 
may well come home with all five examples in the first day or two. When 
he has found his five examples, you are ready to go on to the next phase, 

Helping Your Child Escape Pessimism 239 

Your Child’s ABC Record 










changing: from pessimism to optimism 








ABCDE for Your Child 

Disputation for children is the same process as disputation for adults. 
Once your child grasps the ABC link, you can explain the disputation- 
energization link. Set aside forty minutes; begin by reviewing the ABC 
link. Use two of the child's own examples from his ABC record to review. 
Explain to your child that just because he has those thoughts does not 

Helping Your Child Escape Pessimism 


mean the thoughts are true. They can be disputed, just as if some other 
child, who hated him, said those things about him. 

Taking one of his own examples, ask your child to imagine his worst 
enemy had said that about him. How would your child respond? When he 
gives one good response ask him to give another and another, until he 
can’t think of any more. Now explain that he can dispute his own negative 
thoughts in just the same way he can dispute the accusations of others— 
but with better effect: When the negatives he says to himself are disputed, 
he will stop believing them, and will become more cheerful and able to do 

Now you will need to use some examples and work each one through 
completely with your child. Here are four examples to use—two old ones 
and two new ones: 

Adversity: My teacher, Mr. Minner, yelled at me in front of the 
whole class, and everybody laughed. 

Belief: He hates me and now the whole class thinks I’m a jerk. 

Consequences: I felt really sad and I wished that I could just dis¬ 
appear under my desk. 

Disputation: Just because Mr. Minner yelled at me, it doesn’t mean 
he hates me. Mr. Minner yells at just about everybody, and he told 
our class we were his favorite class. I guess I was goofing around a 
little, so I don’t blame him for getting mad. Everyone in the class, 
well everyone except for maybe Linda but she’s a goody-goody, but 
everybody else has been yelled at by Mr. Minner at least once, so I 
doubt they think I’m a jerk. 

Energization: I still felt a little sad about being yelled at, but not 
nearly as much, and I didn’t feel like disappearing under my desk 

Reread the belief aloud. Ask your child to dispute it in his own words. 
Ask your child to explain how each point in his dispute works: How does 
realizing that Mr. Minner yells at everybody counteract “Mr. Minner hates 

Adversity: My best friend, Susan, told me Joannie was her new best 
friend and from now on she was going to sit with Joannie in the 
cafeteria and not me. 

Belief: Susan doesn’t like me anymore because I’m not cool enough. 
Joannie tells really funny jokes, and whenever I tell a joke nobody 
laughs. And Joannie has really cool clothes, and I dress like a dweeb. 


changing: from pessimism to optimism 

I bet if I was more popular, Susan would still want to be best friends 
with me. Now I’m never going to have anybody to sit with at lunch, 
and everybody is going to know that Joannie is Susan’s new best 

Consequences: I was really scared to go to lunch because I didn’t 
want to get laughed at and have to eat by myself, so I pretended to 
have a stomachache, and I asked Miss Frankel to send me to the 
nurse. I also felt really ugly, and I wanted to change schools. 

Disputation: Susan is really nice and all, but this isn’t the first time 
she has told me she had a new best friend. I remember a while ago 
she told me that Connie was going to be her best friend and before 
she told me that Jacklyn was her new best friend. I don’t think it 
matters how funny my jokes are, and it can’t be my clothes because 
Susan and I bought the exact same outfits last time we went to the 
mall. I guess she just likes to keep switching best friends. Oh well, 
she’s not my only friend; I can sit with Jessica and Latanya at lunch. 

Energization : I wasn’t as worried about who to eat with, and I didn’t 
feel ugly anymore. 

Reread the belief and the consequences out loud. Ask your child to 
dispute the belief in his own words. Prompt him if necessary. Ask him to 
explain how each of his points counters the belief: How does realizing that 
Susan picks a new best friend every few weeks provide evidence against 
“Susan doesn’t like me anymore”? What is the evidence against “I dress 
like a dweeb”? 

Adversity: Today in gym class Mr. Riley picked two kids to be 
captains for kickball, and the rest of us had to line up and get picked 
by one of the kids to be on their team. I was the third-to-last kid 

Belief: Chrissy and Seth hate me. They don’t want me on their 
teams. Now everyone in the whole entire class thinks I’m a spaz, and 
no one is ever going to want me on their team again. I really am a 
spaz; no wonder no one wants to play with me. 

Consequences: I felt so stupid and I almost started crying, but I 
knew if I did cry everyone would laugh at me even worse. So I just 
kinda stood by myself and prayed the ball wouldn’t come to me. 

Disputation: The truth is I’m really not so good at sports. But call¬ 
ing myself a spaz only makes me feel worse about it. So I’m not so 
good at gym, there are other things I’m the best at. Like whenever 
the teacher tells us to break up into study groups, all the kids want 

Helping Your Child Escape Pessimism 


to be in my group. And the essay I wrote about the American Rev¬ 
olution won first prize. I don't think Chrissy and Seth really hate 
me. They just wanted to have the best kickball players on their team. 
It’s not like they are ever mean to me or anything. Oh well, some 
kids are good at gym and some kids are good at other things. I just 
happen to be good at other things like math and reading and social 

Energization: After I said those things to myself I felt a lot better. 
I still wish I was good at everything , and I still hate being the last to 
be picked for teams, but at least I know that in some things I'm the 
first to be picked and that Chrissy and Seth don't hate me. 

Ask your child to do the disputation in his own words and to explain in 
his own words all the evidence against “Chrissy and Seth hate me." What 
other evidence might he have looked for to counter this belief? 

Adversity: Yesterday was my brother’s birthday and my mom and 
stepdad gave him all sorts of toys and a huge cake and they didn't 
even look at me. 

Belief: Temple has always been their favorite. Whatever Temple 
wants, Temple gets. They don’t even know I exist. I know why they 
like him better than me—because he gets better grades than me, and 
on his report card his teacher said he was “super” and on my report 
card Ms. Crisanti said my penmanship “needs improvement." 

Consequences: I felt really sad and lonely, and I was scared that my 
mom was going to tell me she didn’t want me around anymore. 

Disputation: Of course Mom and Troy are giving Temple all sorts 
of toys and things—it’s his birthday. When it was my birthday, they 
gave me lots of presents too. They may be paying more attention to 
him today, but that doesn’t mean they like him better. They’re just 
trying to make him feel special because it’s his birthday. I guess I do 
wish my teacher called me “super" like Temple’s teacher did, but my 
teacher said good things about me under Class Participation and also 
Science. Anyway, Mom and Troy always say they don’t compare my 
grades to Temple’s, that they compare us only to ourselves, and that 
as long as we try our hardest they will be happy. 

Energization: I wasn’t scared my mom was going to tell me to leave 
anymore, and I didn’t feel so bad about the attention Temple was 
getting because I know when my birthday comes around again, he’ll 
be feeling the same way. 


changing: from pessimism to optimism 

When your child has the hang of the examples, you can end the session. 
The next night, hold another forty-minute session. Begin by reviewing the 
link between disputation and energization, using the example he did best 
with during the last session. 

Now it’s his turn. Turn back to his own ABC record. Take each of the 
five instances and get him to dispute the beliefs. Help him by using the 
evidence, alternatives, implications, and usefulness techniques, but it is 
not necessary to teach him these four categories. Just use them to teach 

Then give him his assignment: Once a day for the next five days, he is 
actually to dispute a negative belief that occurs in his life. Each evening 
you and he will write it down and review it. At the end of each session, 
prime him by reminding him of various adversities he is likely to run into 
the next day and how to use disputation with them. 

Your Child’s ABODE Record 






Helping Your Child Escape Pessimism 245 










246 changing: from pessimism to optimism 









Helping Your Child Escape Pessimism 





Extemalization of Voices for Your Child 

The final exercise to do with your child is the extemalization of 
voices. This psychological technique takes advantage of the fact that we 
can examine and dispute criticisms about ourselves more easily when they 
issue from a neutral third party than we can when they come from a biased 
party. In this application, we are going to take the harsh, threatening things 
that run through your child’s mind and put them into the mouth of a.third 
party: a parent helping him practice, or a hand puppet. 

With your child’s help, you will provide the criticism, and he will respond. 
Ask him to help you by telling you what sort of criticisms you should make 
of him. Help him do that by going over his ABC record with him to extract 
criticisms that he frequently makes of himself. 

Explain to him that this exercise will give him practice toward becoming 
an ace disputer. You will help by serving as the source of negative beliefs. 

Remind him frequently that you don’t believe these criticisms are true, 
and that you are using them only because these are thoughts he himself 
might often have. Be very careful: You are his parent, after all, and are 
saying things that, since they are based upon intimate knowledge of him, 
are bound to be close to the mark, possibly too close. The last thing you 
want to do is to express serious criticisms that your child will take to heart 
and be wounded by. 

If your child is still young enough to enjoy puppets, one good way of 
putting some distance between you, as loving parent, and the more difficult 


changing: from pessimism to optimism 

criticisms is to play the “Mr. Puppet game.” Use any hand puppet to do 
the talking. Here is how to introduce it: 

“Everybody knows that sometimes kids say mean things about other 
kids. When other kids say mean, unfair things about you, you usually 
talk back to them and set them straight. That's the right thing to do. 
But you and I know, from the work we’ve been doing together on the 
ABC reports, that sometimes people say mean, unfair things about 
themselves. As a matter of fact, we even know that you sometimes 
say things about yourself that really are wrong. You’ve got to learn 
how to talk back to those unfair things that you sometimes say about 
yourself, right? Okay. Now we’re going to use Mr. Puppet to teach 
you how to talk back to yourself. Mr. Puppet has read your ABC 
record. He knows what you say to yourself. But he’s also a mean bully, 
and your job is to talk back to him, to show him that his criticisms 
are wrong and unfair.” 

Before you begin, read through these examples aloud so your child can 
see the sorts of beliefs to be countered and can observe some ace disputers 
in action. Use Mr. Puppet to make some of the criticisms. 

Situation: Ken is in seventh grade. He is bused to a very good school 
in a middle-class neighborhood. Ken is a good student, he likes the 
school, and he has a great bunch of friends. Every day after school 
he and his friends decide whose house they are going to hang out at. 
Ken would love to invite them all back to his house but he is painfully 
ashamed of his parents and where he lives. One day someone suggests 
they go to Ken’s house, and Ken becomes very embarrassed and tells 
them they can’t go to his house because, he says, “My dad is a doctor 
and has his office in the house.” Ken, feeling sad and ashamed because 
he has told his friends a lie, tells them he’s not feeling well and heads 
home by himself. 

Accusation (by Mom, but using Mr. Puppet, especially for the nas¬ 
tiest criticisms): You’re such a liar [Mr. Puppet]. Your dad, a doctor? 
That’s a joke. You’ll never be able to have the gang over to your 
place. It’s only a matter of time before one of them realizes no one 
has ever been to your house or met your parents. 

Disputation: I really do wish my parents and my house were like 
Ricky’s. I hate feeling ashamed of my parents and where I live. But 
I guess there’s not much I can do about that. Anyway, I’m not the 

Helping Your Child Escape Pessimism 


only one whose house we’ve never been to. Actually, most of the time 
we just go to Henry’s since it’s the closest. 

Mom (sometimes speaking as Mr. Puppet) interrupts: They’re going 
to find out that you live in a dump, that your father’s a drunk, and 
that your mom is a maid. And when they do, there is no way they’re 
going to want to hang out with you anymore. You’ll be the laughing¬ 
stock of the entire school [Mr. Puppet].” 

Disputation continues: I’d definitely feel like a jerk if the guys found 
out my dad is a bum, but I don’t think they’d stop being my friends 
because of it. They’re not hanging out with me because they think 
I’m some rich kid. I mean, if I found out Stewie’s dad didn’t have 
a job, I’d probably feel bad for Stewie but I wouldn’t drop him. 
Gosh, I don’t know what everyone else’s parents do for a living or 
where they all live. For all I know, some of the guys’ parents might 
be as bad off as mine. Oh well, I’m not going to invite the gang home 
with me any time soon, but I’m going to try to stop lying about 

Read the accusations aloud again. Ask your child to dispute them now, 
in his own words. Interrupt with more accusations and have him dispute 

Situation: Lynn is invited to a slumber party by a girl she really 
thinks is neat. When her mom drops her off, Lynn realizes Betsy’s 
parents aren’t home and that the girls are planning to drink some of 
her parents’ liquor. Lynn feels really uncomfortable and pretends to 
be sick and calls her mom to come get her. 

Accusation (by parent): If you didn’t want to drink, at least you 
should have told the truth instead of pretending to be sick. But in¬ 
stead you took the easy way out. You don’t have any guts [Mr. 

Disputation: I do too have guts. The real easy way would be to go 
with the gang and drink just because they were drinking. Faking being 
sick was smart because it got me out of the situation without being 
called names or being pressured. 

Parent (as Mr. Puppet) interrupts: You’re such a baby. The first 
time you get invited to hang out with Betsy, and what do you do? 
You go and wreck it by being a Goody Two-Shoes. 

Disputation continues: I didn’t wreck the slumber party. I wouldn’t 
have had fun if I stayed because I would have been too scared Betsy’s 


changing: from pessimism to optimism 

parents would come home. Oh well, maybe Betsy wouldn’t make such 
a great friend. 

Now read the accusation aloud again and have your child dispute it in 
his own words. Interrupt if necessary. Can your child add anything to this 
dispute to make it more convincing? 

Situation: After much pleading, Anita’s parents bought her the 
puppy she’s been wanting. But after only a few weeks, Anita has lost 
interest in Hogan and has been very forgetful about feeding and walk¬ 
ing him. Finally, Anita’s parents tell her they are going to give Hogan 
away unless Anita acts more responsibly. Anita screams, “You guys 
are sooooo mean. You never wanted me to have a puppy in the first 
place. You’re just looking for an excuse to take him away from me!” 

Accusation (by parent): You’ve got the meanest parents in the whole 

Disputation: Okay, I guess I don’t have the meanest parents in the 
world. They’re okay. They did get me Hogan in the first place, and 
for my birthday my dad took me and Deb into New York City for the 
day. That was really great of him. 

Parent (as Mr. Puppet) interrupts: He’s your dog. They bought him 
for you, and now they’re trying to get rid of him. They just don’t want 
you to have any fun. 

Disputation continues: Maybe the reason they’re so mad is ’cause 
I haven’t been walking and feeding Hogan as much as I said I would. 
I did tell them that if they let me get a puppy, I would take full 
responsibility. But I didn’t realize it would be this much work. 
Maybe if I tried harder to walk him and feed him every day, they’d 
be willing to help me a little. I guess I ought to talk to Mom and Dad 
about this. 

Reread the accusation aloud and ask your child to dispute it himself in 
his own words. 

Now do a few of your child’s own criticisms of himself from his ABC 
record, using Mr. Puppet. Afterward, praise him and then, if his attention 
is still fresh, switch to this last example. In this example, three people are 
all accusing themselves and all disputing their own accusations. It is there¬ 
fore a somewhat complex example and better suited to children aged ten 
and older. If you think your child is too young for it, omit it and turn to 
the material that follows it. 

Helping Your Child Escape Pessimism 


Situation: Hope is fourteen years old, and her sister Meagan is 
fifteen. A few months ago their parents separated. Hope and Meagan 
live with their mother, but they see their father all day Sundays and 
on Thursday nights for dinner. Every Sunday the same pattern is 
followed. Their father picks them up at the house. Hope sits in the 
front of the car, Meagan sits in the back. Hope turns on the radio, 
her father turns it down. Their father asks, “How are things going?” 
Hope mutters “Fine” and turns up the radio. Meagan, hating the 
way Hope acts, takes responsibility for carrying the conversation. 
Finally, angry and frustrated, their father snaps off the radio, Hope 
mutters something sarcastic under her breath, and Meagan is silent. 

Hope’s Accusation: Okay, here we go again. Another fun-filled, 
action-packed Sunday. Dad thinks he can just waltz into our lives for 
one day and one dinner a week and everything is going to be swell. 
How can he ask “How are things going?” and expect me to be able 
to answer? Of course things aren’t going well. He and Mom are sep¬ 
arated, and I have to give up my Sundays to spend time with someone 
who I should be seeing every day. If he really cared about how I’m 
doing, he would call more often and not just spend time with me 
because it happens to be a particular day of the week. 

Hope’s Disputation: Sundays are such a drag. Maybe part of the 
reason they’re so miserable is because we’re all so tense. I mean, it 
shouldn’t have to be this way. I guess I could try to relax a little and 
stop bothering Dad by turning up the radio real loud and giving one- 
word answers. Maybe Dad doesn’t realize it’s hard to respond to a 
question like that. Maybe he’s just saying “How are things going?” 
the way my friends and I say “What’s up?” I mean, granted it’s not 
an ideal situation, but I’m lucky he lives close by and that we can see 
each other. Some of my friends whose parents have split up don’t 
even get to see their fathers at all. I don’t like spending every Sunday 
with him. Sometimes I want to hang out with my friends on Sunday. 
I’d like it better if we decided each week which day would suit us 
best. That way it wouldn’t feel like another thing I had to do. I ought 
to tell him that. I really don’t understand why he doesn’t call us more, 
but I shouldn’t automatically assume it’s because he doesn’t care. I 
can start calling him, after all, whenever I feel like talking, instead of 
waiting for him to call me. It bothers me that he doesn’t call more 
often, but I guess it makes more sense to ask him why he doesn’t call 
instead of jumping to conclusions. Maybe I’ll bring some of this up 
later today. 

Meagan’s Accusation: Here we go again. We’ve been in the car for 
all of five minutes and already Dad and Hope are at it. I should be 


changing: from pessimism to optimism 

able to keep things running smoothly. What’s wrong with me? AH I 
needed to do was keep the conversation going and things would have 
been fine. If I can’t do a simple thing like that, how are things ever 
going to be good again? I’ve really ruined things now. 

Meagan's Disputation: Maybe I’m being a little too hard on myself. 

I mean, it does take two people to have a conversation. I can talk and 
talk until I’m blue in the face but if neither of them responds, then it 
won’t do any good. I just want so desperately for things to be calm 
and easy again that I guess I’m trying to control things that just aren’t 
possible for me to control. I can be relaxed and pleasant and talkative, 
but I can’t make things be the same. This really stinks. Well, at least 
I know it isn’t my fault that the two of them are bickering. 

Dad's Accusation: What the hell is going on? Every Sunday it’s the 
same thing. The second we’re in the car, Hope flips on the radio and 
all but drowns out what I say. I just don’t understand her. Doesn’t 
she want to see me? I mean, I know the kids would rather their mother 
and I were still together, but they have to accept the way things are 
and make the best of it. Meagan is handling things fine. Why does 
Hope have to spoil things? The two of them probably think the sep¬ 
aration is all my fault. They get to see their mother all day, every day, 
and instead of having a good time when we’re together, I’m treated 
like a total stranger. I deserve to be treated better than that. 

Dad's Disputation: Things really are rough right now. I have to try 
and slow down and think them through. First of all, Hope has never 
said she doesn’t want to see me. Maybe the reason she’s so hostile is 
because she’s still really confused by the separation. I guess I’m for¬ 
getting they’re just kids and the separation has really shaken up their 
whole world. It probably doesn’t help to compare the way Hope is 
handling things to the way Meagan is. Meagan is older and she has 
always been the quieter one. Actually, I shouldn’t assume that just 
because Meagan isn’t hostile that she is totally fine with the way things 
are either. With Hope, at least I know she is upset. I really have no 
idea about what is going through Meagan’s mind. Maybe part of the 
reason I get so angry so quickly is because I feel frustrated by the 
situation. I want things to be better, but it’s difficult for me to talk 
about the separation with them. Well, I guess I’d better work at that, 
because they’re just kids and it’s my responsibility as their father to 
bring up the subject, even if it is painful to talk about. 

Now continue with some more of your child’s ABCs. If you’re using Mr. 
Puppet, use him to read each accusation aloud to your child. Ask your 
child to take the role of the accused and dispute it in his own words. 

Helping Your Child Escape Pessimism 


Disputing your own negative thoughts is a life skill that any child 
can learn. Like any acquired skill, it will seem a little awkward when first 
employed. Remember how unnatural the backhand grip felt when you first 
learned it in tennis. Disputing your own thoughts is like that. But with 
practice the backhand became natural, and so will disputing your own 
thoughts. The earlier in life this skill is learned the more grief will be 

When the skills of optimism are learned early, they become fundamental. 
Like habits of cleanliness and kindness, they are so rewarding in themselves 
that practice is automatic rather than a burden. But optimism is a habit 
much more important than cleanliness, particularly if your child scored 
poorly on the depression test or the CASQ, or if you and your spouse are 
not getting along. In these cases, a child is at high risk for depression and 
lowered achievement in school if he does not acquire these skills. If he 
does acquire them, he may become all but immune from the protracted 
feelings of hopelessness and helplessness that otherwise could afflict him. 


The Optmmtk Organization 

Think about the most difficult thing you encounter at work, that time 
when your job gets really discouraging and you feel you have run up against 
a brick wall. What do you do when you hit that wall? 

Steve Prosper is a life-insurance salesman, and between five-thirty and 
nine-thirty most evenings he has to make cold calls—phone calls to people 
he has never met. He hates this part of his job. He gets the names of the 
people to call from a list of all the couples in Chicago who have had babies 
recently. A typical evening goes like this: 

The first prospect hangs up on him after fifteen seconds. The second one 
tells him she already has all the insurance she needs. The third one is 
lonely: He lets Steve talk and gets Steve to listen at length to his version 
of last night’s Cubs game. After thirty minutes, Steve finds out the man is 
on welfare and has no interest in buying insurance. The fourth hangs up 
with “Stop bothering me, you creep.” At this point, Steve hits the wall. 
He stares gloomily at the phone, at the list, at the phone. He pages through 
the newspaper. He stares at the phone some more. He pours himself a 
Coors and flips on the TV. 

Unfortunately for Steve, he has been in direct competition with Naomi 
Sargent. She has the same list of calls and the same tough job, for another 
company. But when she meets the wall she doesn’t get discouraged. She 
is able to make the fifth and sixth and tenth calls briskly. On the twelfth 
call, she gets an appointment. When Steve finally reaches this client three 
nights later, the man politely tells Steve that his insurance needs have 
already been taken care of. 

Naomi is a success and Steve is courting failure, so it should be no surprise 

The Optimistic Organization 


that Naomi is optimistic and enthusiastic about her job, and that Steve is 
pessimistic and depressed about his. Common sense tells us that success 
makes people optimistic. But in this book we have seen repeatedly that 
the arrow goes in the opposite direction as well. Optimistic people become 
successes. In school, on the playing field, and at work, the optimistic 
individual makes the most of his talent. 

And we now know why. The optimistic individual perseveres. In the 
face of routine setbacks, and even of major failures, he persists. When he 
comes to the wall at work, he keeps going, particularly at the crucial 
juncture when his competition is also hitting the wall and starting to wilt. 

Naomi operates on this principle. She knows that in her business only 
one call out of ten—on the average—results in a face-to-face appointment, 
and that in turn only one out of three of these appointments results in a 
sale. Her whole psychology is geared to getting herself over the cold-calling 
wall, and she has some optimism-supporting techniques she uses on herself 
to maintain that psychology. These are techniques Steve does not have. 

Optimism helps at work, and not just in competitive jobs. It can help 
every time your work gets very hard. It can make the difference between 
getting the job done well or poorly or not at all. Take a job that is not at 
all competitive—writing. Writing this chapter, for example. 

Unlike Naomi Sargent, I was not bom an optimist. Tve had to learn 
(and sometimes invent) techniques for getting over the wall. The hardest 
part of writing, for me, is supplying examples, juicy examples that put flesh 
on the abstract principles I write about. Writing about the principles has 
always come easily, since I’ve spent twenty-five years doing research on 
them. But for many years, when I got to the parts that needed examples, 
I would get a headache, which told me I’d hit the wall. I’d fidget. I’d do 
anything other than write: make phone calls; analyze data sheets. If the 
wall was really high, I’d go out and play bridge. This pattern could go on 
for hours, even days. Not only would I not get my work done, but as the 
hours turned to days I’d be stricken with guilt and depression. 

All this has changed. I still hit the wall more often than I’d like, but 
I’ve found some techniques that always help me. In this chapter you will 
learn two of these techniques, which you can use at work: listening in on 
your own internal dialogue and disputing your negative dialogue. 

Everyone has his own point of discouragement, his own wall. What you 
do when you hit this wall can spell the difference between helplessness and 
mastery, between failure and success. Failure, once the wall looms, does 
not stem from laziness, although not getting over the wall is commonly 
mistaken for laziness. Nor is it lack of talent, or lack of imagination. It’s 
simply ignorance of some very important skills not taught in any school. 

256 changing: from pessimism to optimism 

In your work, when do you hit the wall? Bring to mind the recurrent 
situation in your work that most blocks and discourages you. It could be 
making phone calls to clients. It could be writing dialogue. It could be 
arguing with a customer about a bill. It could be closing a deal. It could 
be doing the careful profit-and-loss calculations before making a purchase. 
It could be seeing that glazed look of apathy in your students' eyes. It 
could be exerting patience when a slow colleague takes longer than you 
think he should. It could be trying to motivate an unmotivated employee 
whom you supervise. Hold on to your own example, since much of this 
chapter will be devoted to getting you over your own personal wall at work. 

The Three Edges of Optimism 

Learned optimism gets people over the wall—and not just as indi¬ 
viduals. The explanatory style of a whole team, as we saw in chapter nine, 
can produce victory or defeat. And organizations, large and small, need 
optimism; they need people with talent and drive who are also optimistic. 
An organization filled with optimistic individuals—or studded with opti¬ 
mistic individuals in the crucial niches—has an edge. There are three ways 
an organization can use the optimism edge. 

The first, selection, was the subject of chapter six, “Success at Work.” 
Your company can select optimistic individuals to fill its ranks, as Met¬ 
ropolitan Life did. Optimistic individuals produce more, particularly under 
pressure, than do pessimists. Talent and drive alone are not enough. As 
we have seen, without an unshakable belief that you can succeed, high 
talent and relentless drive can come to nothing. Over fifty companies now 
use optimism questionnaires in their selection procedures to identify people 
who have not just talent and drive but also the optimism needed for success. 
This ability to select for optimism has been proven especially important in 
jobs that have high recruitment and training costs and a high turnover rate. 
Selecting for optimism reduces costly manpower waste and improves the 
productivity and job satisfaction of the whole team. But the use of optimism 
does not end here. 

The second way a company can use optimism is placement. Strong op¬ 
timism is an obvious virtue for “high-defeat” and “high-stress” jobs that 
require initiative, persistence, and bold dreaming. Just as obviously, ex¬ 
treme pessimism is an asset to no one. But some jobs call for a large dollop 
of pessimism. As we saw in chapter six, there is considerable evidence that 
pessimists see reality more accurately than optimists do. Every successful 

The Optimistic Organization 


company, every successful life for that matter, requires both accurate ap¬ 
preciation of reality and the ability to dream beyond the present reality. 
These two qualities of mind, it turns out, do not always come in the same 
body, and few people have the skills you will learn in this chapter, which 
allow you to use optimism or pessimism when you need them. In any large 
company, different individuals will perform different tasks. How can you 
place the right people in the right jobs? 

In order to decide what psychological profile best fits a particular job, 
you must ask two questions about the job. First, to what extent does the 
job require persistence and initiative and bring with it frequent frustration, 
rejection, and even defeat? These are the fields in which optimistic ex¬ 
planatory style is a must: 

• Sales 

• Brokering 

• Public relations 

• Presenting and Acting 

• Fund-raising 

• Creative jobs 

• Highly competitive jobs 

• High-burnout jobs 

At the other extreme are the jobs that require a pronounced sense of 
reality. These are usually “low-defeat” jobs, jobs with low turnover, jobs 
that call for specific technical skills in low-pressure settings. These jobs 
call for reflective realists rather than the hard-charging individuals who 
populate the ranks of the “million dollar-seller” clubs. There are also more 
senior managerial and professional jobs that require an extremely keen 
sense of reality, jobs where optimism must be restrained and where mild 
pessimism can be a virtue. These jobs need people who know when not 
to charge ahead, and when to err on the side of caution. Mild pessimists 
do well in these fields: 

• Design and safety engineering 

• Technical and cost estimating 

• Contract negotiation 

• Financial control and accounting 

• Law (but not litigation) 

• Business administration 

• Statistics 

• Technical writing 

2 5 8 

changing: from pessimism to optimism 

• Quality control 

• Personnel and industrial-relations management 

So, with the exception of extreme pessimism, the full range of optimism 
finds its place in an optimistic organization. It is crucial to learn an appli¬ 
cant’s optimism level and fit him into the niche in which he can be most 

But every organization has in its ranks individuals who are too pessimistic 
for the jobs they hold. These individuals often have the right talent and 
drive for their jobs, and it would be costly and even inhumane to replace 
them. Happily, these people can learn optimism. 

Learning Optimism 

The third edge that optimism gives an organization is the main topic 
of this chapter: learning optimism at work. 

Only two groups of people don’t need to learn optimism in their work 
settings: those who were lucky enough to be bom optimists and those who 
occupy the low-defeat jobs I just listed. The rest of us can benefit, some 
of us greatly, from learning optimism. 

Take Steve Prosper. He liked being an insurance agent. He loved the 
independence: No one looked over his shoulder, he set his own hours, he 
took time off whenever he wanted. He had excellent aptitude for selling 
insurance, and he was strongly motivated. Only one thing stood between 
him and striking success: getting over the wall. 

Steve took a four-day course on optimism. The two leading cognitive 
therapists I mentioned in chapter twelve, Dr. Steven Hollon of Vanderbilt 
University and Dr. Arthur Freeman of the University of Medicine and 
Dentistry of New Jersey, and I developed this course for Foresight, Inc. 
Foresight is a Falls Church, Virginia, company headed by Dr. Dan Oran; 
it administers our optimism questionnaires to industry and gives workshops 
for optimism training at work. Unlike most courses for sales agents, which 
teach you what to say to your clients, this course and the exercises that 
follow focus on what you say to yourself when your client says no. That 
is a radical difference. Steve Prosper, for example, learned a set of skills 
that has made all the difference to him. This chapter is designed to teach 
you the most basic of these skills as they apply to your line of work. 

The Optimistic Organization 


Changing Your Internal Dialogue at Work: 
The ABCDE Model 

What you think when things go wrong, what you say to yourself when 
you come to the wall, will determine what happens next: whether you give 
up or whether you start to make things go right. Our schema for thinking 
about this is Albert Ellis’s ABCDE model, which will be familiar to you 
from chapter twelve. 


A stands for adversity. For some people adversity is an end point. They 
say to themselves, “What’s the use? I can’t go on. Why continue doing 
this? I’m just screwing up.” And they give up. For others adversity is just 
the beginning of a challenging sequence that often leads to success. Ad¬ 
versity can be almost anything: pressure to earn more money, feelings of 
rejection, criticism by your boss, a bored yawn from a student, a spouse 
who refuses to let you out of his or her sight. 

Encountering adversity always sets off your beliefs, your explanation and 
interpretation of why things have gone wrong. The first thing we do when 
we encounter adversity is try to explain it. As we have seen throughout 
this book, the explanations with which we interpret adversity to ourselves 
critically affect what we do next. 

What are the consequences of the different beliefs that come into play? 
When our explanatory beliefs take the form of personal, permanent, and 
pervasive factors (“It’s my fault . . . it’s always going to be like this . . . 
it’s going to affect everything I do”), we give up and become paralyzed. 
When our explanations take the opposite form, we become energized. The 
consequences of our beliefs are not just actions but feelings as well. 

I want you now to identify some ABCs. Some of these examples will 
apply to your life, others will not. In each of these examples, I’ll provide 
the adversity, along with either the belief or the consequence. You supply 
the missing component in a way that fits sensibly with the ABC model. 


changing: from pessimism to optimism 

Identifying ABCs 

1. A. Someone cuts you off while you are driving. 

B. You think_ 

C. You get angry and honk your horn. 

2. A. You lose an easy sale. 

B. You think, “I’m a lousy sales agent.” 

C. You feel (or do)_ 

3. A. Your boss criticizes you. 

B. You think_ 

C. You’re depressed all day. 

4. A. Your boss criticizes you. 

B. You think_ 

C. You feel pretty good about what happened. 

5. A. Your spouse asks that you be home every evening. 

B. You think_ 

C. You feel angry and frustrated. 

6. A. Your spouse asks that you be home in the evenings. 

B. You think_ 

C. You feel sad. 

For the next three, imagine you’re a sales agent: 

7. A. You haven’t gotten an appointment all week. 

B. You think, “I never do anything right.” 

C. You feel (or do)_ 

The Optimistic Organization 


8. A. You haven’t gotten an appointment all week. 

B. You think, “I had a good week last week.” 

C. You feel (or do)- 

9. A. You haven’t gotten an appointment all week. 

B. You think, “My boss gave me lousy leads this week.” 

C. You feel (or do)_ 

The point of this exercise is to bring home how the ways you think about 
adversity change how you then feel and what you then do. 

In the first example, you probably filled in something like “What a jerk,” 
“What’s he in such a hurry about?” or “What an inconsiderate bastard.” 
In the fifth example, you might have said “She never thinks about my 
needs.” When our explanation of adversity is external and when we believe 
that the adversity is a trespass against our domain, we feel anger. 

In the second example, you should feel sad, deflated, listless. The ex¬ 
planation “I’m a lousy sales agent” is personal, permanent, and pervasive— 
the recipe for depression. Similarly, in the sixth example, when your 
spouse’s asking you to stay home every evening made you sad, you probably 
said something like “I’m inconsiderate” or “I’m a lousy husband.” 

What intervening explanation would get you depressed all day when 
your boss criticizes you in number 3? Something permanent, pervasive, 
and personal: “I don’t know how to write well” or “I’m always screwing 
up.” But how did you change the explanation to come out feeling pretty 
good after your boss criticized you? What you had to do was, first, to make 
the reason for the criticism something you could change, something un¬ 
stable: “I know where I can get help at effective writing” or “I should 
have proofread it.” Second, you had to make your thinking less pervasive: 
“It was only this report that was poor.” Third, you had to shift the blame 
away from yourself: “My boss was in a terrible mood.” “There was too 
much time pressure on me.” If you can habitually make these three moves 
at the point of belief, adversity can become a springboard to success. 

In the last three examples, you can see that if you thought, as in number 
7, “I never do anything right”—permanent, pervasive, personal—you felt 
sad and did nothing. If you thought “I had a good week last week,” as in 
number 8, you held sadness at bay and kept at the job. If you thought, as 
in number 9, “My boss gave me lousy leads this week”—temporary, local, 


changing: from pessimism to optimism 

and external—you would be annoyed at your boss but would also hope 
that next week would be better. 


The ABC link, between what you believe about adversity and what 
you then feel, should be clear to you. If you still need convincing, do the 
ABC record exercises in chapter twelve (pages 213-17) using ABCs from 
your workday. Each time you find yourself suddenly deflated, sad, angry, 
anxious, or frustrated at work, write down the thought that came right 
before. You will find these thoughts look much like your answers to the 
ABC exercises. 

This means that if you can change B, your beliefs and explanations about 
adversity, C will change too. You can change from a passive, sad, or angry 
response to adversity to an invigorated, cheerful response. This depends 
crucially on D. 

D stands for disputing your beliefs. 

Disputing Your Beliefs 

Let me reuse an earlier example. If a drunk, reeling in the street, 
shouted at you, “You always screw up! You have no talent! Quit your 
job!” how would you react? You wouldn’t take the accusations very se¬ 
riously. You’d either dismiss them out of hand and go about your business 
or, if they happened to strike a nerve, you’d dispute them to yourself: “I 
just wrote a report that turned around our red-ink situation”; “I was just 
promoted to vice-president”; “Anyway, he doesn’t know the first thing 
about me. He’s just a drunk.” 

But what happens when you shout equally damning things to yourself? 
You believe them. You do not dispute them. After all, if you say them 
about yourself, you reason, they must be indisputably true. 

That is a bad mistake. 

As we saw in previous chapters, the things we say to ourselves when 
trouble strikes can be just as baseless as the ravings of a drunk on the 
street. Our reflexive explanations are usually not based on reality. They 
are bad habits that emerge from the mists of the past, from ancient conflicts, 
from parental strictures, from an influential teacher’s unquestioned criti- 

The Optimistic Organization 


cisms, from a lover’s jealousy. But because they seem to issue from our¬ 
selves—could there be a source with higher credibility?—we treat them 
like royalty. We let them run our lives without even shouting back at them. 

Much of the skill of dealing with setbacks, of getting over the wall, 
consists of learning how to dispute your own first thoughts in reaction to 
a setback. So ingrained are these habits of explanation that learning to 
dispute them effectively takes a good bit of practice. To learn how to dispute 
your automatic thoughts, you first have to learn to listen to your own 
internal dialogue at work. Here’s a game that will teach you how. 

The Wall-Vaulting Game 

The focus of this game is your own personal wall, the part of your work 
that most makes you want to give the whole thing up. In our workshops 
with insurance-sales agents this part is easy to isolate. It’s cold calling, 
making calls to total strangers to get personal appointments. You have to 
keep plugging at the cold calls. Agents who are easily discouraged, who 
can’t bounce back briskly from rejection, fall by the wayside. Those who 
can make their twenty calls every evening succeed. 

We use cold calling as a tool to get agents to identify the ABCs in their 
work. They bring their cold-calling list to the workshop. For homework, 
the first evening, they make ten cold calls. After each one, they write down 
the adversity, the belief, and the consequences. Here’s what they hear 
themselves saying: 

Adversity: About to start making cold calls. 

Belief: I hate doing this. I shouldn’t have to make these calls. 
Consequences: I felt angry and tense and had a hard time picking 
up the receiver. 

Adversity: My first call of the night hung up on me. 

Belief: That was rude. He didn’t even given me a chance. He 
shouldn’t treat me like that. 

Consequences: I felt sore and had to take a break before making 
my second call. 


changing: from pessimism to optimism 

Adversity: My first call of the night hung up on me. 

Belief: Oh well, that’s one no out of the way. It brings me closer 
to the yes. 

Consequences: I felt relaxed and energetic. 

Adversity: I kept the woman on the phone for close to ten minutes 
and then she told me she didn’t want to set an appointment. 

Belief: I really blew that one. What’s wrong with me? If I can’t get 
an appointment from a call like that, I must be really lousy. 

Consequences: I felt dejected and frustrated and apprehensive about 
the next call. 

You can see that when adversity is followed by permanent, pervasive, 
and personal explanations (“I must be really lousy”), dejection and giving 
up follow. When adversity is followed by the opposite kinds of explanations 
(“That’s one ‘no’ out of the way”), the consequences are energy and good 

Now it’s your turn to play the wall-vaulting game. Tune in on your 
internal dialogue when you face your own wall at work, and see how these 
beliefs can determine what you then feel and what you do next. The game 
has three variants. Pick the one that fits your work. 

1. If your work involves making phone calls to strangers, take out your 
list. Make five calls. After each one, write down the adversity, then the 
thoughts that went through your head and how you felt and what you then 
did. Record this below, on page 266. 

2. If your work does not involve cold calling, I want you to identify a 
wall you face each day at work, so that you can carry out your personal 
ABCs while you are at work. If you’re stuck, here are a couple of examples 
to help you do this. 

One of the walls in teaching is dealing with the apathy of the stu¬ 
dents; it just feels as if no matter what I do, no matter how creative 
I try to be, there is a group of kids who just don’t want to learn. I 
hate the feeling of cramming knowledge down their throats. Knowing 
that I’m not going to reach these kids makes it harder and harder for 
me to be creative because in the back of my head I am thinking, 
“What’s the use?” 

The Optimistic Organization 


In nursing one of the major things that leads to burnout is the 
treatment many nurses get from both above and below. Patients are 
often demanding, hostile, and cranky, and doctors are often demand¬ 
ing, hostile and cranky. This can leave the nurse feeling overworked 
and underappreciated. A typical complaint is this: “I tell myself at the 
beginning of each shift that I am not going to let the pressure get to 
me. Of course the patients are demanding and cranky—they are sick 
in a hospital. Who wouldn’t be? It’s not so easy to explain away the 
treatment I get from the doctors. Instead of treating me like a team¬ 
mate they act as if the work I do isn’t as important and I’m not as 
intelligent. After a while, no matter how many times I pump myself 
up in the morning, it gets to me and I start to dread my next shift. I 
start feeling lethargic and moody, and I’m constantly counting the 
hours until I’m off.” 

Now identify your own daily wall at work. Next week go right up to that 
wall every day. Except this time, listen to what you are saying to yourself. 
As soon as you get a couple of free minutes, write down the adversity, 
your beliefs, and the consequences. Record them in the spaces provided 
below (pages 266-7). 

3 . The third variant is for those of you who face your wall less than 
once a day. Being unable to get started on major reports or projects is a 
wall that usually comes up only a few times a year. Another job in which 
the wall usually looms less than once a day is supervising other people. 

One of the walls managers face is to keep the level of incentive high 
among the people they supervise. As one manager put it: “Managing 
people can be very frustrating at times ... at least periodically. The hardest 
part, the part I really dread, is to keep people motivated and productive. 
I try to be positive, I try to lead by example, but sometimes I just don’t 
understand what is going through their heads. And then of course, after 
I have gotten on someone’s case, I end up feeling like such a nag. I don’t 
want to be too easy on them, I don’t want to be too tough on them, so in 
the end I feel as if I’m totally ineffectual. As I said, it gets really frustrating.” 

If you’re in this third category, take twenty minutes out this evening at 
home and go to a quiet room. Imagine as vividly as you can the situation 
that constitutes your wall. Use props if you have them. If your wall is 
writing reports, sit down in front of a blank sheet of paper and get into a 
fantasy about the report’s being due tomorrow. Allow yourself to feel the 
desperation; work up a sweat. If you’re a manager, conjure up the face of 
your surliest employee. Play out the dialogue to yourself. Write down the 


changing: from pessimism to optimism 

adversity, your beliefs, and the consequences. Do this five times, trying a 
different twist in the adversity each time. Record it in the blanks provided 









The Optimistic Organization 









When you have recorded your five ABC episodes, look over your beliefs 
carefully. You will see that in your own internal dialogue, pessimistic 
explanations set off passivity and dejection, whereas optimistic explana¬ 
tions set off activity. So the next step is to change those habitual pessimistic 
explanations that adversity sets off. To do this you must now play the 
second round of the game: disputation. 


The second round of the wall-vaulting game consists of repeating what you 
just did, but now disputing your pessimistic explanations each time you 


changing: from pessimism to optimism 

make them. Fortunately, mastering the skill of disputing doesn’t take much 
training. You do this daily, either in reality or in your head, when you 
disagree with what others say and do. You have had a lifetime of practice 
disputing other people’s negative beliefs. But what you have missed is 
treating your own negative beliefs as if they emanated not from yourself 
but from a jealous coworker or a misguided student or your worst enemy. 

At home tonight, choose the same scenario you used in the first phase— 
get out your cold-calling list or, in a quiet room, imagine yourself up against 
your wall at work. Now, for each of the five encounters with adversity, 
focus on your own negative thoughts and then dispute them. After each 
single encounter is over, write down the ABC along with your disputation 
(D) and the energization and feelings that ensue (E). Before you start, 
read these examples to help your own disputation: 

Cold Calling: 

Adversity: The person hung up on me after listening to me for a 
long time. 

Belief: He should have let me finish since he let me get that far. I 
must have done something wrong to blow it so late in the game. 

Consequences: I felt angry at the prospect and real disappointed in 
myself. I wanted to throw in the towel for the evening. 

Disputation: Maybe he was in the middle of something and was 
feeling antsy to get back to it. I must have been doing pretty well if 
I kept a busy person on the phone for as long as I did. I can’t control 
what he does. All I can do is present my material as well as I can and 
hope the person on the other end has an open mind and the time to 
listen. Obviously, he didn’t. That’s his loss. 

Energization: I was ready to go on to the next call. I was happy 
with my presentation and confident my work would pay off in the long 

Adversity: The man was interested but he wouldn’t make an ap¬ 
pointment until I first talked to his wife. 

Belief: What a waste of time. Now I have to take time away from 
other possibilities to resell this couple. Why can’t he just make a 
decision for himself? 

Consequences: I felt very impatient and a bit angry also. 

Disputation: Hey, at least it wasn’t a no. It wasn’t a waste of time 

The Optimistic Organization 


because it may very well turn into an appointment. If I sold him, I 
can sell his wife. So I’m halfway there. 

Energization: I felt confident and optimistic that with a little more 
work I could have a sale. 

Adversity: I made my twentieth call and had only six contacts. 

Belief: This is a waste of time. I don’t have the energy to succeed. 
I’m so disorganized. 

Consequences: I felt frustrated, tired, depressed, and overwhelmed. 

Disputation: Six contacts in an hour isn’t bad. It’s only seven-thirty 
and I can still do another hour and a half of calling. I can take ten 
minutes now to get better organized so I can make more calls this 
hour than I did in the last hour. 

Energization: I felt less overwhelmed and depressed and I had more 
energy, since I’d planned out a course of action. 

Adversity: My husband phoned me when I was right in the middle 
of doing my calling. 

Belief: Why is he calling me now? He’s throwing off my pace and 
wasting my time. 

Consequences: I felt irritated and I was curt with him on the phone. 

Disputation: Don’t be so hard on him. He didn’t realize his call 
would distract me. He probably thought it would be a nice break. It’s 
sweet that he thinks about me when we’re apart. I’m glad I have such 
a kind and supportive husband. 

Energization: I relaxed and felt good about my husband and our 
marriage. I called him back and explained why I had been curt. 

Adversity: I made forty calls and got no appointments. 

Belief: I’m not getting anywhere. This is stupid. I’m not getting any 
results. It’s a total waste of effort and time. 

Consequences: I felt frustrated and angry about having spent my 
time doing this. 

Disputation: It was only one night and only forty calls. Everyone 
has difficulty with cold calling, and nights like this are going to happen 
from time to time. Anyway, it was a learning experience: I got to 
practice my presentation. So tomorrow night I’ll be even better. 

Energization: I still felt a little frustrated but not nearly as much, 
and I didn’t feel angry anymore. Tomorrow night I’ll get some results. 


changing: from pessimism to optimism 


Adversity: I haven’t been able to break through the apathy some of 
my students feel toward learning. 

Belief: Why can’t I reach these kids? If I were more dynamic or 
more creative or more intelligent, I would be able to excite them about 
learning. If I can’t reach the kids who need the most help, then I am 
not doing my job. I must not be cut out for teaching. 

Consequences: I don’t feel like being creative. I have little energy 
and I feel depressed and dejected. 

Disputation: It doesn’t make sense to base my worth as a teacher 
on a small percentage of my students. The truth is that I do excite the 
majority of my students, and I spend a great deal of time planning 
lessons that are creative and allow the students as much individuali¬ 
zation as possible. At the end of the term, when I have a little more 
time, I can organize a meeting with other teachers in the school who 
face this same problem. Maybe as a group we will be able to come 
up with some ideas that will help us reach the apathetic students. 

Energization: I feel better about the work I do as a teacher and 
hopeful that new ideas can be generated through a discussion with 
other teachers. 


Adversity: I have six hours left of my shift, we’re short-staffed, and 
a doctor just told me I was too slow. 

Belief: She’s right. I am too slow. I should be able to keep things 
running smoothly at all times, and I don’t. The other nurses would be 
able to keep up. I guess I’m just not right for the job. 

Consequences: I feel really down on myself, and I feel guilty that I 
am not doing as good a job as I ought to. I feel like running out of 
the hospital in the middle of my shift. 

Disputation: It would be ideal if things ran smoothly all the time, 
but that’s not realistic, especially around a hospital. Anyway, it is not 
my responsibility alone to make sure everything is taken care of. I’m 
doing just as well as the other nurses on the shift. I may have been a 
little slower than usual, but we’re short-staffed today so I am taking 
on extra responsibility, which means things take a little longer. I can 

The Optimistic Organization 


feel good about taking on the extra work instead of feeling bad about 
the slight inconvenience it causes the doctor. 

Energization: I feel a lot better about myself and much, much less 
guilty about any inconvenience to the doctor. The prospect of six more 
hours doesn’t seem so overwhelming. 


Adversity: My section is falling behind its production schedules and 
my boss is beginning to complain about it. 

Belief: Why can’t the crew I’ve got do what they’re supposed to do? 
I’ve shown them all they need to know, but they keep screwing it up. 
Why can’t I get them to work better? That’s why I was hired. Now 
my boss is complaining. He thinks it’s all my fault and I’m a lousy 

Consequences: I feel really angry and annoyed at my whole section, 
and I want to call them all into my office and bawl them out. I also 
feel bad about myself and nervous about my job. I want to avoid my 
boss until we get back on schedule. 

Disputation: First of all, it is true my section is falling behind. But 
I’ve got several new recruits, and it will take time for them to learn 
to do it right and work up to speed. I’ve had this before, but never 
with as many new guys. I’ve given them all the right instruction, but 
it still takes time. Some are quicker than others, and one is coming 
along really fast. I haven’t done anything that’s basically wrong. Also, 
the old hands are performing well, so it’s just a matter of patience, 
and especially attention to the recruits. I’ve explained all this to my 
boss, and he knows it’s true—he hasn’t told me to try anything dif¬ 
ferent. I’ll bet he’s under pressure from the production managers. 
They’re not going to let up, so neither is he. I’ll talk to him again and 
ask him directly if there’s anything I’ve missed. At the same time, I’ll 
keep working on the crew, motivating, encouraging, and pushing, and 
see if there’s any way I can get the old hands to help. 

Energization: I no longer feel like bawling them out. In fact, now 
I can discuss the situation with them calmly and with an open mind. 
I feel a lot less nervous about my job because I know I have a good 
record with the company. Also, instead of avoiding my boss, I will 
meet with him to give him a progress report and answer any questions 
he may have. 

272 changing: from pessimism to optimism 

Now it’s your turn to record your disputations. Do it five times. 









The Optimistic Organization 












changing: from pessimism to optimism 









You should have found that when you began to dispute your negative 
beliefs, the consequences changed from dejection and lethargy to invigo- 
ration and feeling better. 

At this point, you probably need some practice in disputing your au¬ 
tomatic pessimistic thoughts. We will now turn to an exercise that will 
make you better at quashing them. 

The Optimistic Organization 


Extemalization of Voices 

Your boss frowns at you when you walk into the office. You think, 
“I must have messed up that report. He might fire me.” Feeling dejected, 
you slip into your office and stare glumly at your report. You can’t even 
bring yourself to reread it. You spend the next minutes brooding and your 
mood gets bleaker. 

When something like this happens to you, you must break off your bleak 
mood by disputing your pessimistic explanations of the boss’s frown or 
whatever it was that caused the mood. As we saw in the last two chapters, 
there are usually four tacks to take in effective disputation with yourself. 

• Evidence? 

• Alternatives? 

• Implications? 

• Usefulness? 


Shift to the role of detective and ask yourself, “What is the evidence both 
for and against the belief?” 

For example: On what grounds did you think it was your report that 
made your boss frown? Do you know of anything wrong with your report, 
something that might have displeased him? Did it take all the obvious 
factors into account? Did its conclusion follow from the premises? Has 
your boss even read the report yet, or is it still lying on his secretary’s 

Often you will find you have catastrophized, jumped to the worst possible 
conclusion in the absence of solid evidence—sometimes just on the thinnest 


Is there any other way to look at the adversity? 

For example: What are some alternative explanations for the boss’s 
frown? These may not come readily to mind, because your automatic 
pessimistic explanations, unchallenged for years, can be very ingrained. 
You must consciously search for any plausible alternative explanations. “Is 


changing: from pessimism to optimism 

he just in one of his black moods?” “Was he up most of the night preparing 
for the IRS audit?” “If it was me, was it my report or my wearing a loud 
bow tie?” 

Once you generate several alternatives, you can go back to the first step 
and scan the evidence for each one. 


What if your dark explanation is right? Is it the end of the world? 

Suppose it was your report that angered the boss. Does this mean he’s 
going to fire you? It’s your first slip-up, after all. If he is starting to form 
a negative impression of your ability, what can you do to turn it around? 
Again go back to step one: What is the evidence that he would fire you 
even if he didn’t like your report? 

Just because a situation is unfavorable doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a 
catastrophe. Master the important skill of decatastrophizing by examining 
the situation’s most realistic implications. 


Sometimes the accuracy of your explanation is not what really matters. 
What matters is whether thinking about the problem now will do any good. 

If you were a tightrope walker, it would be a poor idea, while you were 
up on the high wire, to focus on what might happen if you fell. It might 
be very useful to think about this some other time, but not when you need 
all your wits about you just to keep from falling. 

Will brooding about the worst implications of the boss’s frown just get 
you into hotter water now? Or will brooding throw off the important 
presentation you are scheduled to make this afternoon? If so, you should 
distract yourself from your negative beliefs. 

There are three reliable ways to accomplish that. Each is simplistic but 

• Do something physically distracting, like snapping a rubber band on 
your wrist, or dashing cold water on your face while saying “Stop!” to 

• Schedule a specific time for thinking things over. It might be a half 
hour this evening or any other time that fits into your day. When you find 
yourself ruminating, you can say to yourself, “Stop! I’ll tackle that at seven- 
thirty this evening.” The tormenting process of worrisome thoughts going 

The Optimistic Organization 


round and round, coming back again and again, has a purpose: to make 
sure we don’t forget or neglect an issue we should deal with. But if we set 
aside a specific time for thinking the issue over, we undercut the very 
reason for brooding now, so the brooding is no longer psychologically 

• Write the troublesome thoughts down at the moment they occur. Now 
you can return to them not helplessly but deliberately, when the time is 
right for you. Like the second technique for distraction, this one also robs 
brooding of its very reason for existence. 

Armed with these four ways of disputing your pessimistic explana- 
tions—evidence? alternatives? implications? usefulness?—you now can get 
some practice at externalizing your disputation: bringing your thoughts out 
into the open where they can be dealt with. Here’s a technique that has 
worked well in optimism seminars: Choose a trusted coworker to practice 
with. If there is no one appropriate from work, your spouse or any patient 
friend will do fine. Their job is to throw at you the sort of pessimistic 
criticism that you heap on yourself. Go over your ABCDE record with 
them, so they can see what kinds of criticisms you routinely attack yourself 
with. Your job is to sit on the hot seat and dispute the criticisms out loud, 
to beat them down. Use every argument you can think of. Here are some 
examples to study before you start. 

Coworker (attacking you the way you attack yourself): The manager 
didn’t make eye contact with you when you spoke. She must not think 
what you have to say is important. 

You (on the hot seat): It’s true that most of the time while I was 
speaking my manager wasn’t looking at me. It didn’t seem as if she 
was listening very attentively to my ideas [evidence]. 

This doesn’t mean, however, that my ideas aren’t important or that 
she thinks they’re not important [implications]. Maybe she’s got a lot 
on her mind right now [alternatives]. I know in the past she has listened 
to my ideas and has even sought my opinion on a couple of occasions 

Coworker (interrupting): You must be stupid. 

You (continuing the dispute): Even if she didn’t like my ideas, that 
doesn’t mean I’m stupid [implications]. I have a good head on my 
shoulders and I usually contribute something intelligent to most con¬ 
versations [evidence]. In the future, I’ll be sure to ask whether it’s a 


changing: from pessimism to optimism 

good time to share some ideas with her before I begin speaking [im¬ 
plications]. This way I won’t make the mistake of confusing her dis¬ 
traction for lack of interest in my ideas [alternatives]. 

Fellow teacher (making criticisms like the ones you usually make of 
yourself): You aren’t reaching your students. They’d rather shoot 
spitballs than listen to you. 

You (on the hot seat): The truth is I am not reaching a group of 
my students [evidence]. But that doesn’t mean I’m not a good teacher 
[implications]. I’m able to interest most of my students, and I take 
pride in the creative lesson plans I’ve developed [evidence]. It would 
be nice if all my students were interested in this subject, but that’s 
not realistic [alternatives]. I’m continually trying to draw these students 
into the lesson and to encourage them to get involved in some scho¬ 
lastic activity [evidence]. 

Fellow teacher (breaking in): You mustn’t be a very good teacher 
if you can’t even hold their attention for fifty minutes. 

You (continuing the dispute): Just because I haven’t yet been suc¬ 
cessful with this small percentage of my students doesn’t erase the fact 
that I actually am very successful with the majority of the kids I teach 

Coworker: You let her walk all over you. You have no backbone. 
You must be a real coward. 

You (on the hot seat): Discussing problems with superiors is difficult 
for a lot of people [alternatives]. I don’t think I was as assertive with 
her as I am with my colleagues, but I did express my concerns in a 
clear, nonemotional way [evidence]. Being cautious doesn’t make me 
a coward. She is my manager and has power over me [alternatives]. 
It was a delicate situation, and by erring on the side of caution I did 
not threaten or offend her—which would have closed the door of 
communication [implications]. This way, before I continue the dis¬ 
cussion with her, I can take some time and practice saying what I want 
to say in an assertive but noncombative style [usefulness]. 

Coworker: The reason the person you phoned hung up on you is 
that your presentation is all wrong. 

You (on the hot seat): I may not have made a stellar presentation, 
but it was good and I spoke clearly and with authority [evidence]. The 
presentation I made was pretty consistent with others I made today, 
and this was the first hang-up I’ve had in over twenty cold calls 

The Optimistic Organization 


I don’t think my presentation had anything to do with the fact that 
he hung up on me. He may have been in the middle of something 
important, or perhaps as a rule he doesn’t listen to soliciting on the 
phone [alternatives]. Either way, it was unfortunate he hung up on 
me, but it’s not really a reflection on my ability [implications]. 

If you have ideas about phone presentations you’d like to share. I’d 
be interested in hearing them later today, when I’m taking a break 

Fellow nurse: Nothing you do is ever enough. The patients always 
want your attention, and the doctors are continually criticizing you. 
If you were a better nurse you could make the patients and the doctors 

You (on the hot seat): It’s true—no matter how hard I work there 
will still be things that need my attention [evidence]. That’s just part 
of the job. It doesn’t mean I’m not a good nurse [implications]. 

Fellow nurse (interrupting): This is a high-pressure job, and you 
just don’t have the drive to make it. 

You (responding): It’s not realistic to think I have the responsibility 
or the power to make either the patients or the doctors happy. I can 
keep the patients as comfortable as possible, and I can help the doctors 
manage their workload, but I am not responsible for their happiness 

It’s a high-pressure job, and I’d like to learn some ways of handling 
the pressure. I’ll set aside some time to talk to the more experienced 
nurses about how they manage the pressure [usefulness]. 

It’s your turn now. Take twenty minutes and sit on the hot seat while 
your friend throws criticisms at you of the sort you say to yourself. Dispute 
them with everything you have. Once you have convinced yourself and 
your friend that you have a plausible way out, go on to the next criticism. 
After twenty minutes switch roles. 


This chapter was designed to give you two basic skills to use at work. 

First, you learned to tune into your own negative dialogue by writing 
down the beliefs you have when adversity strikes. You saw that when these 
beliefs were pessimistic, dejection and passivity usually followed. If you 


changing: from pessimism to optimism 

could change those automatic explanations of adversity, you could change 
the consequent feelings to invigoration and good cheer. 

To do this, you practiced disputing your pessimistic beliefs. You did this 
by writing down your disputations when they arose at work and in imag¬ 
ination. Then you used the extemalization of voices to give you more 

This is the beginning. The next part is up to you. Now, each time you 
face adversity listen carefully to your explanations of it. When they are 
pessimistic, actively dispute them. Use evidence, alternatives, implications, 
and usefulness as guideposts when you dispute yourself. Use distraction if 
necessary. Let this become the new habit to supplant the automatic pes¬ 
simistic explanations you used to make all the time. 

Flexible Optimism 

“Hope** is the thing with feathers— 

That perches in the soul— 

And sings the tune without the words— 
And never stops—at all— 

Emily Dickinson 
No. 254 (c. 1861) 

The fears that haunt me at four in the morning have changed in the 
last two months. So, in fact, has my whole life. I have a new daughter, 
Lara Catrina Seligman. She is a beauty. Now, as I type, she is suckling at 
her mother's breast, and every minute or so she stops, stares penetratingly 
at me (deep blue eyes on amazingly azure-tinted whites) and breaks into 
a smile. Smiling is her latest accomplishment. Her smiles take up her whole 
face. I think of the baby humpback whale I saw last winter in Hawaii, far 
off the Kona coast of the Big Island, so happy just to be alive, breaching 
joyously over and over, with her more sedate parents standing guard. Lara’s 
smile is overwhelming, and it comes back to me at four in the morning. 

What does the future hold for her? What will become of all that affir¬ 
mation? A huge new generation is just being born. The New York Times 
reports that married American women are now, suddenly, almost twice as 
likely to plan to have children as they were ten years ago. This new gen¬ 
eration is our affirmation of the future. But it will be a generation in peril— 
the usual atomic and political and environmental peril, of course, but also 
a spiritual and psychological peril. 

The peril, though, may have a cure, and learned optimism may have a 
role in that cure. 


changing: from pessimism to optimism 

Depression Revisited 

As we saw in chapter four, depression has been on the rise since World 
War II. Young people today are ten times likelier to suffer severe depres¬ 
sion than their grandparents were, and depression takes a particularly 
heavy toll among women and among the young. There is no sign that the 
epidemic of depression is easing, and my four a.m. fears tell me that for 
Lara and her generation, this is the real peril. 

To explain why depression is so much more common now and why 
modern life in developed countries makes its children so vulnerable to 
crippling depression, I want to look first at two other alarming trends, the 
waxing of the self and the waning of the commons. 

The Waxing of the Self 

The society we live in exalts the self. It takes the pleasures and pains, 
the successes and failures of the individual with unprecedented seriousness. 
Our economy increasingly thrives on individual whim. Our society grants 
power to the self that selves have never had before: to change the self and 
even to change the way the self thinks. For this is the age of personal 
control. The self has expanded to such a point that individual helplessness 
is deemed something to remedy, rather than our expected and accepted 
lot in life. 

When the assembly line was created at the turn of this century, it at first 
presented the self with no problems of personal control. We could buy 
only white refrigerators because the assembly line made it more profitable 
to paint every refrigerator the same color. In the 1950s, however, with the 
advent of the transistor and of rudimentary machine intelligence, choice 
began to be imposed upon us, for it became just as profitable to encrust 
every hundredth refrigerator with rhinestones, if there had been a market 
for them. Machine intelligence opened an enormous market for customi¬ 
zation, a market that thrived on individual choice. Now blue jeans are no 
longer all blue; they come in dozens of colors and hundreds of varieties. 
With the permutations of options available, you are offered tens of millions 
of models of new cars. There are hundreds of kinds of aspirin and thousands 
of kinds of beer. 

To create the market for all this, advertising whipped up a great enthu¬ 
siasm for personal control. The deciding, choosing, hedonistically preoc- 

Flexible Optimism 


cupied individual became big business. When the individual has a lot of 
money to spend, individualism becomes a powerful, and profitable, 

During this same period, America was becoming a Croesus-rich country. 
Although millions of people are left out of the prosperity, Americans on 
the average now have more buying power than any other people in history. 
Wealth today means something different from what it did in centuries past. 
Consider the medieval prince: He was wealthy, but most of what he owned 
was inalienable. He could no more sell his land and go out and buy horses 
than he could sell his title. His wealth, unlike ours, could not be translated 
directly into purchasing power. Our wealth, in contrast, is tied to the 
bewildering array of choices opened to us by the process that produced 
the rhinestone refrigerator. We have more food, more clothes, more ed¬ 
ucation, more concerts and books, more knowledge, some even say more 
love to choose from, than any other people ever had. 

Along with this escalation in material expectations has come an esca¬ 
lation in what counts as acceptable in work and in love. Our job used to 
be counted satisfactory if it brought home the bacon. Not so today. It must 
also be meaningful. There must be room to move up. It must provide for 
a comfortable retirement. Coworkers must be congenial and the endeavor 
ecologically sound. 

Marriage also now requires more than it used to. It’s no longer just a 
matter of raising children. Our mate must be eternally sexy, and thin, and 
interesting to talk to, and good at tennis. These inflated expectations are 
rooted in the expansion of choice. 

Who chooses? The individual. The modem individual is not the peasant 
of yore with a fixed future yawning ahead. He (and now she, effectively 
doubling the market) is a frantic trading floor of options, decisions, and 
preferences. And the result is a new kind of self, a “maximal” self. 

The self has a history. In one form or another, it has been around for 
a long time, its properties varying with the time and with the culture. From 
the Middle Ages until the late Renaissance the self was minimal; in a 
painting by Giotto, everyone but Jesus looks like everyone else. Toward 
the end of the Renaissance the self expanded, and in Rembrandts and El 
Grecos the bystanders no longer all look like members of a chorus. 

The expansion of the self has continued into our times. Our wealth and 
our technology have culminated in a self that chooses, that feels pleasure 
and pain, that dictates action, that optimizes or satisfices, and that even has 
rarefied attributes—like esteem and efficacy and confidence and control. 
I call this new self, with its absorbing concern tor its gratifications and 
losses, the maximal self to distinguish it from what it has replaced, the 


changing: from pessimism to optimism 

minimal, or Yankee, self, the self our grandparents had. The Yankee self, 
like the medieval self, did little more than just behave; it was certainly less 
preoccupied with how it felt. It was less concerned with feelings and more 
concerned with duty. 

For better or for worse, we are now a culture of maximal selves. We 
freely choose among an abundance of customized goods and services and 
reach beyond them to grasp more exquisite freedoms. Along with the 
freedoms the expanded self brings some dangers. Chief among them is 
massive depression. I believe that our epidemic of depression is a creature 
of the maximal self. 

If it had happened in isolation, exalting the self might have had a positive 
effect, leading to more fully lived lives. But it was not to work out that 
way. The waxing of the self in our time coincided with a diminished sense 
of community and loss of higher purpose. These together proved rich soil 
for depression to grow in. 

The Waning of the Commons 

The life committed to nothing larger than itself is a meager life 
indeed. Human beings require a context of meaning and hope. We used 
to have ample context, and when we encountered failure, we could pause 
and take our rest in that setting—our spiritual furniture—and revive our 
sense of who we were. I call the larger setting the commons. It consists of 
a belief in the nation, in God, in one’s family, or in a purpose that tran¬ 
scends our lives. 

In the past quarter-century, events occurred that so weakened our com¬ 
mitment to larger entities as to leave us almost naked before the ordinary 
assaults of life. As has often been observed, the assassinations, the Vietnam 
War, and Watergate combined to destroy for many the idea that our nation 
was a means through which we could accomplish lofty goals. Those of you 
who grew up in the early 1960s probably sensed this, as I did, on November 
22, 1963, as we watched our vision of the future wiped out. We lost hope 
that our society could cure human ills. It’s a commonplace, perhaps, but 
an accurate observation, that many in my generation shifted their com¬ 
mitment, out of fear and out of despair, from careers in public service to 
careers in which we could at least make ourselves happy. 

This shift from the public good to private goods was reinforced by the 
assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Robert Ken¬ 
nedy. The Vietnam War taught those a bit younger the same lesson. The 
futility and cruelty of a decade of war eroded youth’s commitment to 

Flexible Optimism 


patriotism and America. And for those who missed the lesson of Vietnam, 
Watergate was hard to ignore. 

So commitment to the nation lost its ability to provide us with hope. 
This erosion of commitment, in turn, caused people to look inward for 
satisfaction, to focus upon their own lives. While political events were 
nullifying the old idea of the nation, social trends were nullifying God and 
the family, as scholars have noted. Religion or the family might have 
replaced the nation as a source of hope and purpose, keeping us from 
turning inward. But, by unfortunate coincidence, the erosion of belief in 
the nation coincided with a breakdown of the family and a decline of belief 
in God. 

A high divorce rate, increased mobility, and twenty years of low birthrate 
are the culprits in the erosion of family. Because of frequent divorce, the 
family is no longer the abiding institution it once was, a sanctuary that 
would always be there unchanged when we needed balm on our wounds. 
Easy mobility—the ability to pick up and move great distances—tends to 
shatter family cohesion. Finally, having no siblings or just one—which is 
the case in so many American families—isolates a person. The extra at¬ 
tention that results when parents are centered on just one or two children, 
although gratifying to the kids in the short run (it actually ups their mean 
IQ about half a point), in the long run gives them the illusion that their 
pleasures and pains are rather more momentous than they are. 

So put together the lack of belief that your relationship to God matters, 
the breakdown of your belief in the benevolent power of your country, 
and the breakdown of the family. Where can one now turn for identity, 
for purpose, and for hope? When we need spiritual furniture, we look 
around and see that all the comfortable leather sofas and stuffed chairs 
have been removed and all that’s left to sit on is a small, frail folding chair: 
the self. And the maximal self, stripped of the buffering of any commitment 
to what is larger in life, is a setup for depression. 

Either growing individualism alone or a declining commons alone would 
increase vulnerability to depression. That the two have coincided in Amer¬ 
ica’s recent history is, in my analysis, why we now have an epidemic of 
depression. The mechanism through which it works is learned helplessness. 

In chapters four and five we saw that when individuals face failures they 
cannot control, they become helpless. And as this book has shown, help¬ 
lessness becomes hopelessness and escalates into full-blown depression 
when a person explains his failures with permanent, pervasive, and personal 

Life is inevitably full of personal failures. We rarely get all we aspire to. 
Frustration, defeat, and rejection are daily experiences. In an individual- 


changing: from pessimism to optimism 

istic culture such as ours, which places little importance on anything beyond 
the self, a person gets scant comfort from society when personal loss occurs. 
More “primitive” societies go out of their way to nurture the individual 
when loss occurs, and thus prevent helplessness from becoming hopeless¬ 
ness. A psychological anthropologist, Buck Schieffelin, has tried, without 
success, to find an equivalent of depression among the Stone Age Kaluli 
tribesmen of New Guinea. Schieffelin suggests that the reciprocity between 
the individual and the Kaluli tribe prevents depression. When a Kaluli’s 
pig runs away and he displays his grief over the loss, the tribe will give 
him another pig. Loss is recompensed by the group, and helplessness does 
not escalate into hopelessness, loss does not escalate into despair. 

But our epidemic of depression is not merely a matter of the paltry 
comfort we get from society at large. In many ways extreme individualism 
tends to maximize pessimistic explanatory style, prompting people to ex¬ 
plain commonplace failures with permanent, pervasive, and personal 
causes. The growth of the individual, for example, means that failure is 
probably my fault—because who else is there but me? The decline of the 
commons means that failure is permanent and pervasive. To the extent 
that larger, benevolent institutions (God, nation, family) no longer matter, 
personal failures seem catastrophic. Because time in an individualistic so¬ 
ciety seems to end with our own death, individual failure seems permanent. 
There is no consolation for personal failure. It contaminates all of life. To 
the extent that larger institutions command belief, any personal failure 
seems less eternal and less pervasively undermining. 

Changing the Balance 

So that is my diagnosis: The epidemic of depression stems from the 
much-noted rise in individualism and the decline in the commitment 
to the common good. This means there are two ways out: First, chang¬ 
ing the balance of individualism and the commons; second, exploiting 
the strengths of the maximal self. 

The Limits of Individualism 

Do the maximal self and its traps tell us anything about the long¬ 
term future of individualism? I believe unbridled individualism has such 
negative consequences that, as it destroys us, it may destroy itself. 

Flexible Optimism 


For one thing, a society that exalts the individual to the extent ours now 
does will be riddled with depression. And as it becomes apparent that 
individualism produces a tenfold increase in depression, individualism will 
become a less appealing creed to live by. 

A second and perhaps more important factor is meaninglessness. I am 
not going to be foolish enough to attempt to define meaning for you, but 
one necessary condition for meaning is the attachment to something larger 
than you are. The larger the entity you can attach yourself to, the more 
meaning you can derive. To the extent that it is now difficult for young 
people to take seriously their relationship to God, to care about their duties 
to the country, or to be part of a large and abiding family, meaning in life 
will be very difficult to find. 

The self, to put it another way, is a very poor site for meaning. 

If an individualism without commitment to the commons produces 
depression and meaninglessness on a massive scale, then something has to 
give. What? One possibility is that exaggerated individualism will fade 
away, that the maximal self will change back into the Yankee self. Another, 
frightening possibility is that, in order to shed depression and attain mean¬ 
ing, we will rashly surrender the newly won freedoms that individualism 
brings, giving up personal control and concern for the individual. The 
twentieth century is riddled with disastrous examples of societies that have 
done just this to cure their ills. The current yearning for fundamentalist 
religion throughout the world appears to be such a response. 

The Strengths of the Maximal Self 

There are two other possibilities, both more hopeful. Both exploit 
the strengths of the maximal self. The first changes the balance between 
the self and the commons by choosing to expand its commitment to the 
commons. The second uses learned optimism. 

Moral Jogging 

Although its defenses have been unknown and untapped until 
recently, the maximal self is not defenseless: It is self-improving. Perhaps, 
through the very process of improvement, it can come to see that its 
inordinate preoccupation with itself, while gratifying in the short run, is 
bad for its well-being in the long run. 


changing: from pessimism to optimism 

Among the choices the maximal self might make is a paradoxical one. 
Selfishly, as a tactic of self-improvement, it might actually choose to scale 
down its own importance, in the knowledge that depression and meaning¬ 
lessness follow from self-preoccupation. Perhaps we could retain our belief 
in the importance of the individual but diminish our preoccupation with 
our own comfort and discomfort. This would allow room for a new at¬ 
tachment to larger things. 

Even if we want it, a commitment to the commons is not going to spring 
up overnight in a culture as individualistic as our own. There is still too 
much self. A new tactic is in order. 

Consider jogging. Many of us now choose to jog. We slog along in all 
sorts of weather, waking up at ungodly hours to do so. The activity in itself 
gives most of us little or no pleasure. It is sometimes annoying and not 
infrequently painful. We do it because it appeals to our long-term self- 
interest. We believe that in the long run we will be better off, that we will 
live longer and healthier lives and be more attractive if we engage in this 
daily flagellation. A little daily self-denial is exchanged for long-term self¬ 
enhancement. Once we became convinced that lack of exercise would likely 
be costly to our health and well-being, the alternative of jogging became 

Individualism and selfishness present a wholly parallel situation. Depres¬ 
sion, I have argued, stems partly from an overcommitment to the self and 
an undercommitment to the common good. This state of affairs is hazardous 
to our health and well-being just as lack of exercise and certain cholesterols 
are. The consequence of preoccupation with our own successes and failures 
and lack of serious commitment to the commons is increased depression, 
poor health, and lives without meaning. 

How do we—in our own self-interest—lessen our investment in ourselves 
and heighten our investment in the commons? The answer may be “moral 

The sacrifice involved in giving to others and spending serious time, 
money, and effort enhancing the common good does not come naturally 
to the present generation. Looking out for number one is what seems to 
come naturally these days. A generation ago it was rest and feasting that 
came naturally—the ideal Sunday; yet we have become convinced it is 
better for us to forgo these pleasures, and we now spend Sundays doing 
the opposite: exercising and dieting. Big changes, then, are at least pos¬ 

How can we break the strong habits of selfishness in ourselves and our 
children? Exercise—not physical but moral—may be the antidepressant 
tactic we need. Consider adopting one of the following for yourself: 

Flexible Optimism 


• Put aside 5 percent of last year’s taxable income to give away, not 
to charities like United Way, which do the work for you; you must 
give the money away yourself, personally. Among potential recip¬ 
ients in the charitable field you are interested in, you must advertise 
that you are giving away $ 3,000 (or whatever) and for what general 
purposes. You must interview prospective grantees and decide 
among requests. You give out the money and follow its use to a 
successful conclusion. 

• Give up some activity which you do regularly for your own plea¬ 
sure—eating out once a week, watching a rented movie on Tuesday 
night, hunting on fall weekends, playing video games when you come 
home from work, shopping for new shoes. Spend this time (the 
equivalent of an evening a week) in an activity devoted to the well¬ 
being of others or of the community at large: helping in a soup 
kitchen or a school-board campaign, visiting AIDS patients, clean¬ 
ing the public park, fund-raising for your alma mater. Use the 
money you saved by canceling the pleasurable activity to further that 

• When asked by a homeless person for money, talk to him. Judge as 
well as you can if he will use the money for nondestructive purposes. 

If you think he will, give it to him (give no less than five dollars). 
Frequent areas where you will find beggars, talking to the homeless 
and giving money to the ones in true need. Spend three hours per 
week doing this. 

• When you read of particularly heroic or despicable acts, write 
letters: fan letters to people who could use your praise and mend- 
your-ways letters to people and organizations you detest. Follow 
up with letters to politicians and others who can act directly. Spend 
three hours per week at this. Do it slowly. Compose the letters 
every bit as carefully as you would a crucial report for your 

• Teach your children how to give things away. Have them set aside 
one-fourth of their allowance to give away. They should discover a 
needy person or project to give this money to, personally. 

It is not necessary to undertake this in a selfless spirit. It is perfectly all 
right for you to do this because it is good for you, regardless of its effect 
on the common good. 

It might be argued that increased contact with the commons can be 
depressing, and that if it’s depression you want to escape, better to mingle 
with the rich and beautiful in Acapulco than spent a night proctoring a 


changing: from pessimism to optimism 

homeless shelter. One might assume that visiting mortally ill AIDS patients 
once a week would be a surefire recipe for weekly depression. And there’s 
no denying that for some people, that might be the case. But I would 
suggest that exposure to human suffering, while saddening, is not “‘de¬ 
pressing” as we have used the term in this book. What is authentically 
depressing is to imagine oneself trapped in a world full of monsters—the 
uncouth, unkempt poor, the emaciated sufferers from terminal AIDS, and 
so on. Experienced volunteers, however, report that a major surprise for 
them has been the lift they derive from their work. They discover, through 
contact, that the poor and the sick are not monsters but very human beings; 
that modest heroism among the afflicted is the rule rather than the excep¬ 
tion; that while what they see as volunteers may sadden them it does not 
depress them; and that quite often they are deeply moved. It is liberating 
to see firsthand that among the theoretically helpless there is frequently 
an amazing degree of mastery, spiritual and psychological. 

If you engage in activity in service of the commons long enough, it will 
gain meaning for you. You may find that you get depressed less easily, 
that you get sick less often, and that you feel better acting for the common 
good than indulging in solitary pleasures. Most important, an emptiness 
inside you, the meaninglessness that rampant individualism nurtures, will 
begin to fill. 

Surely in this age of choice, this choice is ours. 

Learned, Optimism 

The second way of exploiting the strengths of the maximal self has 
been the topic of this book. We have seen throughout how depression 
follows from a pessimistic way of thinking about failure and loss. Learning 
how to think more optimistically when we fail gives us a permanent skill 
for warding off depression. It also can help us achieve more and have better 

Advocating that we can learn optimism would have made little sense, 
however, before the rise of the maximal self. A society that viewed depres¬ 
sion as stemming from bad genes or bad biology would see little point in 
trying to change what we think when we fail. A society that views the self 
as minimal would not be much interested in psychology in the first place. 
But when a society exalts the self, as ours does, the self, its thoughts and 
their consequences become subjects of careful science, and of therapy and 
self-improvement. This improved self is not a chimera. As we have seen, 

Flexible Optimism 


its own level of optimism can profoundly change what will happen to it, 
and its optimism can itself be changed. 

My daughter Lara’s generation, if fortune holds, may view depression 
as stemming from how we think, and more important, it may view how 
we think as changeable. One of the great bulwarks of the maximal self is 
that it believes the self can change the way it thinks. And this belief allows 
change to take place. 

I do not believe learned optimism alone will stem the tide of depression 
on a society-wide basis. Optimism is just a useful adjunct to wisdom. By 
itself it cannot provide meaning. Optimism is a tool to help the individual 
achieve the goals he has set for himself. It is in the choice of the goals 
themselves that meaning—or emptiness—resides. When learned optimism 
is coupled with a renewed commitment to the commons, our epidemic of 
depression and meaninglessness may end. 

Flexible Optimism 

There can be little doubt about it: Optimism is good for us. It is also 
more fun: What goes on in our head from minute to minute is more 
pleasant. But optimism and optimism alone cannot remedy the depression, 
the failure, and the ill health that have been the topic of this book. Op¬ 
timism is no panacea. As we have seen above and in earlier chapters, it 
has its limits. For one thing, it may work better in some cultures than in 
others. For another, it may sometimes keep us from seeing reality with 
the necessary clarity. Finally, it may help some to evade responsibility for 
their failures. But these limits are just that: limits. They do not nullify the 
benefits of optimism; rather they put it in perspective. 

In the first chapter we talked about two ways of looking at the world, 
the optimistic and the pessimistic. Until now, if you were a pessimist you 
had no choice but to live in pessimism. You would endure frequent depres¬ 
sions. Your work and your health would suffer. It would always be wet 
weather in your soul. In exchange for this you might have gained a keener, 
sense of reality and a stronger sense of responsibility. 

You now have a choice. If you learn optimism, you can choose to use 
its techniques whenever you need them—without becoming a slave to them. 

For example, let’s say you have learned the techniques well. When you 
face defeats and setbacks, you are now able to curtail depression by dis¬ 
puting the catastrophic thoughts that used to plague you. Along comes a 
new setback. Your child, let’s call her May, is in kindergarten. May is the 


changing: from pessimism to optimism 

youngest and the smallest kindergartner. She faces the prospect of being 
less mature than her classmates year after year. Her teacher wants to hold 
her back and have her repeat the year. And you are now worrying about 
this. Holding her back a year—a depressing prospect. 

You might, if you choose, launch into all the disputations that would let 
you think that she should go on to the first grade: She has such a high IQ, 
her musical talents are way above kindergarten level, she’s very pretty. 
But you can also choose not to dispute. You can say to yourself that this 
is one of those moments that call for seeing reality with merciless clarity, 
not one of those moments that call for warding off your own depression. 
Your daughter’s future is at stake. The cost of being wrong here outweighs 
the importance of fighting off your own demoralization. So this is the time 
to take stock. You can choose not to dispute the pessimistic thoughts. 

What you now have is more freedom—an additional choice. You can 
choose to use optimism when you judge that less depression, or more 
achievement, or better health is the issue. But you can also choose not to 
use it, when you judge that clear sight or owning up is called for. Learning 
optimism does not erode your sense of values or your judgment. Rather 
it frees you to use a tool to better achieve the goals you set. It allows you 
to use to better effect the wisdom you have won by a lifetime of trials. 

And what of the bom optimist? Until now, he was as much a slave to 
the tyrannies of optimism as the pessimist was to the tyrannies of pessimism. 
He got great benefits: less depression, better health, higher achievement. 
He was even more likely to be elected to high office. But he paid a price: 
benign illusions, a weaker sense of responsibility. Until now. 

The optimist is also set free by the knowledge of what optimism does 
and how it works. He too can invoke his values and his judgment and say 
to himself that the present moment does not call for his very effective 
habits of disputing dire thoughts. This moment is a time for heeding their 
call. Now he can choose whether to use his disputing tactics, since he 
knows their benefits and their cost. 

So optimism’s benefits are not unbounded. Pessimism has a role to play, 
both in society at large and in our own lives; we must have the courage 
to endure pessimism when its perspective is valuable. What we want is not 
blind optimism but flexible optimism—optimism with its eyes open. We 
must be able to use pessimism’s keen sense of reality when we need it, but 
without having to dwell in its dark shadows. 

The benefits of this kind of optimism are, I believe, without limit. 


Chapter One 

page 9 In 1959, Noam Chomsky: N. Chomsky, Review of Verbal Behavior by B.F. 
Skinner, Language , 35 (1959), 26-58. 

10 With these freedoms: Gerald Klerman, during his tenure as administrator of 
the federal Alcohol, Drug Abuse, and Mental Health Administration 
(ADAMHA), sponsored several large-scale studies to find out how much 
mental illness existed in America. In “The Age of Melancholy?”, Psychology 
Today , April 1979, pp. 37-42. Klerman presents some of the alarming statistics 
on the prevalence of depression today. 

Until recently : Sigmund Freud presents the psychoanalytic theory in the spec¬ 
ulative but spellbinding paper “Mourning and Melancholia,” in Standard Edi¬ 
tion of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud , ed. and trans. 
J. Strachey, Vol. 14 (London: Hogarth Press, 1957; originally published 1917), 
237-58. Freud distinguishes mourning, a normal condition, from melancholia, 
a mental disorder. Modern psychological research, in contrast, highlights the 
continuity of the two conditions. 

11 The other , more acceptable: Two useful works by partisans of the biomedical 
position are R.R. Fieve, Moodswing (New York: William Morrow, 1975) and, 
more technically, D.F. Klein and J.M. Davis, Diagnosis and Drug Treatment 
of Psychiatric Disorders (Baltimore: Williams and Wilkins, 1969). 

16 Each of us carries: I am indebted to Robertson Davies's marvelous essay “What 
Every Girl Should Know,” in One Half of Robertson Davies (New York: 
Viking, 1977) for the apt phrase “the word in heart.” I am indebted to him 
for much else besides. 

Chapter Two 

19 It’s the dogs: The transfer experiments ultimately demonstrated that Pavlovian 
conditioning could energize or inhibit instrumental learning (see R. A. Rescorla 



and R.L. Solomon, “Two-Process Learning Theory: Relationship Between 
Pavlovian Conditioning and Instrumental Learning,” Psychological Review , 

74 [1967], 151-82). 

page 22-8 / returned to the lab : A fuller account, and complete bibliography, of the 
helplessness experiments in animals is found in M. Seligman, Helplessness: 
On Depression, Development, and Death (San Francisco: Freeman, 1975). See 
also S.F. Maier and M. Seligman, “Learned Helplessness: Theory and Evi¬ 
dence,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General , 105 (1976), 3-46. 

27 When worldviews clash : An account of a several-day debate between the be- 
haviorist and cognitive views on learned helplessness was published in Behavior 
Research and Therapy 18 (1980), 459-512. You can decide for yourself who 

The behaviorists’ acrobatic : An account of the role of epicycles can be found 
in T. Kuhn, The Copernican Revolution: Planetary Astronomy in the Devel¬ 
opment of Western Thought (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 
1957 ), 59 ^ 4 - 

29 According to Hiroto’s : See D.S. Hiroto, “Locus of Control and Learned Help¬ 
lessness,” Journal of Experimental Psychology , 102 (1974), 187-93. 

Chapter Three 

40 This view ran: For an account of the role attribution theory plays in achieve¬ 
ment situations see B. Weiner, I. Frieze, A. Kukla, L. Reed, S. Rest, and 
R.M. Rosenbaum, Perceiving the Causes of Success and Failure (Morristown, 
N.J.: General Learning Press, 1971) and Julian Rotter’s classic monograph 
“Generalized Expectancies for Internal Versus External Control of Reinforce¬ 
ment,” Psychological Monographs , 80 (1966) (1, Whole No. 609). 

43 At that moment : The special issue of the Journal of Abnormal Psychology , 87 
(1978), contained the Abramson, Seligman, and Teasdale reformulation, about 
a dozen other articles, mostly critical of original helplessness theory, and some 
heated replies and rebuttals. 

Since that time there have been hundreds of journal articles and scores of 
doctoral dissertations about explanatory style, learned helplessness, and 
depression. This massive literature has been controversial, but consensus has 
emerged that pessimistic explanatory style and depression are robustly related, 
as the theory predicts. P. Sweeney, K. Anderson, and S. Bailey, “Attributional 
Style in Depression: A Meta-analytic Review,” Journal of Personality and 
Social Psychology , 50 (1986), 974-91, review 104 studies excluding all those 
from my own laboratory. C. Robins, “Attributions and Depression: Why Is 
the Literature So Inconsistent?” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology , 
54 (1988), 880-9, concludes that studies that have not found the predicted 
pessimism-depression relationship consistently used inappropriately small 

H. Tenen, and S. Herzberger, “Attributional Style Questionnaires,” in 
J. Keyser and R.C. Sweetland, eds., Test Critiques , Vol. 4 (1986), 20--30, 
review the history and use of the questionnaire. 

48 Whether or not : The most up-to-date variant of hope theory is L. Y. Abramson, 
G.I. Metalsky, and L.B. Alloy, “Hopelessness Depression: A Theory-Based 



Process-Oriented Sub-type of Depression,” Psychological Review , 96 (1989), 

52 There is a . . . : The conflict between self-blame and responsibility, on the one 
hand, and helplessness on the other was first discussed in a lucid paper about 
depression by L.Y. Abramson and H. Sackeim, “A Paradox in Depression: 
Uncontrollability and Self-blame,” Psychological Bulletin , 84 (1977), 838-51. 
How, they ask, is it possible for a depressed person both to believe he is to 
blame for the tragedies in his life and to believe he is helpless? 

Chapter Four 

The most illuminating general reference I know on the psychology of depres¬ 
sion is still Aaron T. Beck’s 1967 classic Depression (New York: Hoeber). 
Two excellent guides to treatment are Albert Ellis, Reason and Emotion in 
Psychotherapy (New York: Stuart, 1962), and A.T. Beck, A.J. Rush, B.F. 
Shaw, and G. Emery, Cognitive Therapy of Depression: A Treatment Manual 
(New York: Guilford, 1979). 

54 When in a pessimistic : For unpacking the functions of complicated everyday 
objects, see David Macaulay, The Way Things Work (Dorling Kindersley, 

55 Bipolar depression always: M.G. Allen, “Twin Studies of Affective Illness,” 
Archives of General Psychiatry , 33 (1976), 1476-8. 

57 Aaron Beck: The dialogue about wallpaper comes from Beck, et al., Cognitive 
Therapy of Depression, 130-1. 

59 How depressed are you: The CES-D (Center for Epidemiological Studies- 
Depression) Test is a widely used inventory of the symptoms of depression. 
The CES-D scale: a self-report depression scale for research in the general 
population. L. Radloff, Applied Psychological Measurement , 1 (1977), 385- 

63-5 As you took the test: In “The Age of Melancholy?” ( Psychology Today , April 
1979, 37-42), Gerald Klerman presents some of the alarming statistics on the 
prevalence of depression and coins the term “Age of Melancholy.” The two 
major studies that found the epidemic of depression are L. Robins, J. Helzer, 
M. Weissman, H. Orvaschel, E. Gruenberg, J. Burke and D. Regier, “Lifetime 
Prevalence of Specific Psychiatric Disorders in Three Sites,” Archives of Gen¬ 
eral Psychiatry , 41 (1984), 949-58, and G. Klerman, P. Lavori, J. Rice, 
T. Reich, J. Endicott, N. Andreasen, M. Keller and R. Hirschfeld, “Birth 
Cohort Trends in Rates of Major Depressive Disorder Among Relatives of Pa¬ 
tients with Affective Disorder,” Archives of General Psychiatry , 42 (1985), 689- 
93. Both these studies are gold mines for the serious student of abnormality. 

My one dissent from these important studies is that the biomedically inclined 
authors speak of them as indicating a “gene-environment interaction over 
time” in the production of so much depression today. I see no evidence at all 
in their data for an interaction; rather, the effect appears to be purely envi¬ 
ronmental. Both those who are genetically vulnerable (the relatives) and the 
public in general (the ECA population) seem to be getting depressed at much 
higher rates recently. 

65 Not only is severe depression: The finding that depression now starts younger 



comes from the elegant mathematization of the data from T. Reich, P. Van 
Eerdewegh, J. Rice, J. Mullaney, G. Klerman and J. Endicott, “The Family 
Transmission of Primary Depressive Disorder,” Journal of Psychiatric Re¬ 
search , 21 (1987), 613-24. 

page 66 Wilbur and Orville : I am grateful to Seymour Papert, who made this clever 
observation about modeling intelligence in about 1970 to the members of a 
group that is not supposed to exist (Psychological Round Table). 

67-70 Thus was the learned-helplessness: The criteria for adequacy in a model of 
psychopathology have been enumerated by L.Y. Abramson and M. Seligman, 
“Modeling Psychopathology in the Laboratory: History and Rationale,” in 
J. Maser and M. Seligman, eds., Psychopathology: Experimental Models (San 
Francisco: Freeman, 1977), 1-27- The major criterion is the mapping of symp¬ 
toms from model to pathology. As the reader can see, this criterion is met 
extraordinarily well in this case. 

The most detailed argument for the close symptom correspondence of 
learned helplessness and DSM-III-R-diagnosed depression is made by J.M. 
Weiss, P.G. Simson, M.J. Ambrose, A. Webster, and L.J. Hoffman, “Neu¬ 
rochemical Basis of Behavioral Depression,” Advances in Behavioral Medi¬ 
cine , I (1985), 253-75. This paper and the important work of Sherman and 
Petty also lay out the powerful brain-chemistry and pharmacological similarities 
between learned helplessness and depression (see, for example, A.D. Sherman 
and F. Petty, “Neurochemical Basis of Antidepressants on Learned Help¬ 
lessness,” Behavioral and Neurological Biology , 30 [1982], 119-34). 

Chapter Five 

73 “The troubled person Beck’s quote is from A.T. Beck, Cognitive Therapy 
and the Emotional Disorders (New York: New American Library, 1976). 

A progenitor : Wolpe’s revolutionary findings were published in J. Wolpe, 
Psychotherapy by Reciprocal Inhibition (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 
1958). Freud’s theory of phobia is laid down in the famous 1909 Little Hans 
case (S. Freud, “The Analysis of a Phobia in a Five-year-old Boy” in Collected 
Papers of Freud , Vol. Ill [London: Hogarth Press, 1950], 149-289). 

Wolpe’s therapy has generated a great deal of outcome research, mostly 
showing that it works very effectively on phobias, without the symptom sub¬ 
stitution that Freudian theory predicts. There is still dispute, however, about 
what its active ingredients are. For a review, see A.E. Kazdin and L.A. 
Wilcoxon, “Systematic Desensitization and Nonspecific Treatment Effects: A 
Methodological Evaluation,” Psychological Bulletin , 83 (1976), 729-58. 

75 Our reasoning : The NIMH collaborative study was recently published (I. Elkin, 
P. Pilkonis, J.P. Docherty, and S. Sotsky, “Conceptual and Methodological 
Issues in Comparative Studies of Psychotherapy and Pharmacotherapy,” 
American Journal of Psychiatry, 145 (1988), 909-17. 

Perhaps even more important, because it also tracked how therapy worked 
as well as documenting that cognitive therapy worked as well as tricyclic drugs, 
is S.D. Hollon, R.J. De Rube is, and M.D. Evans, “Combined Cognitive Ther¬ 
apy and Pharmacotherapy in the Treatment of Depression,” in D. Manning 
and A. Frances, eds.. Combination Drug and Psychotherapy in Depression 



(Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Press, 1990). This study will, I pre¬ 
dict, become the classic in the held. 

76-80 The difference between: Detailed reviews of explanatory style and depres¬ 
sion, and extensive bibiliographies, can be found in C. Peterson and M. Sel- 
igman, "Causal Explanations as a Risk Factor for Depression: Theory and 
Evidence,” Psychological Review , 91 (1984), 347-74; in P. Sweeney, K. An¬ 
derson, and S. Bailey, "Attributional Style in Depression: A Meta-Analytic 
Review,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology , 50 (1986), 974-91; 
and in L. Y. Abramson, G.I. Metalsky, and L.B. Alloy, "Hopelessness Depres¬ 
sion: A Theory-Based Process-Oriented Sub-type of Depression,” Psycholog¬ 
ical Review , 96 (1989), 358-72. 

81- 2 First , both treatments : The basic findings that cognitive therapy breaks up 
depression as well as tricyclic antidepressants do, that cognitive therapy works 
by changing explanatory style, and that explanatory style at the end of therapy 
predicts relapse come from a series of three major forthcoming papers primarily 
authored by Steve Hollon, Rob DeRubeis, and Mark Evans. The "Tanya” 
quotes are from transcripts from this study. As in the other quotes from patients 
in this book names and identifying facts have been changed to preserve 

82- 3 People who mull over: Three psychologists have made the major contri¬ 
butions to the recent study of rumination: Julius Kuhl, Susan Nolen- 
Hoeksema, and Harold Zullow. See J. Kuhl, "Motivational and Functional 
Helplessness: The Moderating Effect of State Versus Action-Orientation,” 
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology , 40 (1981), 155-70; H.M. 
Zullow, "The Interaction of Rumination and Explanatory Style in Depres¬ 
sion,” Master's Thesis, University of Pennsylvania, 1984; and S. Nolen- 
Hoeksema, Sex Differences in Depression (Stanford: Stanford University 
Press, 1990). 

83- 7 Depression is primarily: That women suffer more depression than men do 
is incontrovertible. Why is a heated question. Perhaps the best recent reviews 
of the topic are S. Nolen-Hoeksema, "Sex Differences in Depression: Theory 
and Evidence,” Psychological Bulletin , 101 (1987), 259-82, and her important 
book Sex Differences in Depression. 

89-91 Cognitive therapy uses: Four of the five basic moves of cognitive therapy 
are taken from A.T. Beck, A. J. Rush, B. F. Shaw, and G. Emery, Cognitive 
Therapy of Depression: A Treatment Manual (New York: Guilford, 1979). 
The fifth move, assumption challenging, is unique to Ellis (A. Ellis, Reason 
and Emotion in Psychotherapy , [New York: Stuart, 1979]). The therapies of 
Beck and Ellis are now very similar and one of the only distinctions concerns 
assumption challenging. Assumption challenging is typically not much used in 
the Socratic therapy of Beck, but is a large part of the more counterpropa- 
gandistic therapy of Ellis. 

93 “ Meanwhile , the Ice Kings”: I have for years collected poems, jokes, sayings, 
and anecdotes about optimism and pessimism. Wagoner's poem, "The Labors 
of Thor,” in David Wagoner, Collected Poems (1956-76) (Bloomington: In¬ 
diana University Press, 1976), is at the top of my list. The two stanzas quoted 
are the closing stanzas of what I think is one of the great pieces of modern 
American verse. I am grateful to Bert Brim for having shown me it. 



Chapter Six 

page 99-106 Even before I walked : Most of the data on sales and explanatory style lie 
in internal reports of Foresight, Inc., of Falls Church, Va., and its business 
clients. Two papers are available, however: M. Seligman and P. Schulman, 
“Explanatory Style as a Predictor of Performance as a Life Insurance Agent,” 
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology , 50 (1986), 832-8; and P. Schul¬ 
man, M. Seligman, and D. Oran, “Explanatory Style Predicts Productivity 
Among Life Insurance Agents: The Special Force Study” (unpublished manu¬ 
script available from Foresight, Inc., 3516 Duff Drive, Falls Church, Va. 22041 

104 Success Magazine heard : Jill Neimark, “The Power of Positive Thinkers,” 
Success Magazine , September 1987, 38-41. 

108 That evening : Lionel Tiger, Optimism: The Biology of Hope (N.Y.: Simon 
and Schuster, 1979). 

109 Ten years ago : Already a classic, L.B. Alloy and L. Y. Abramson, “Judgment 
of Contingency in Depressed and Nondepressed Students: Sadder but Wiser,” 
Journal of Experimental Psychology: General , 108 (1979), 441-85, was the first 
study to demonstrate depressive realism. 

Another kind of evidence: P. Lewinsohn, W. Mischel, W. Chaplin, and 
R. Barton, “Social Competence and Depression: The Role of Illusory Self- 
perceptions,” Journal of Abnormal Psychology , 89 (1980), 203-12, demon¬ 
strated depressive realism in the judgment of social skill. 

no Still another variety: Depressive realism seems to hold for memory as well, 
but the evidence conflicts. See, for example, R. DeMonbreun and E. Craig¬ 
head, “Distortion of Perception and Recall of Positive and Neutral Feedback 
in Depression,” Cognitive Therapy and Research , 1 (1977), 311-29. 

This pattern: Lopsidedness in nondepressed people is reviewed by C. Peterson 
and M. Seligman, “Causal Explanations as a Risk Factor for Depression: 
Theory and Evidence,” Psychological Review , 91 (1984), 347-74. 

in Pessimists “see the world aright”: Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary 
(N.Y.: Dover, 1958 [original edition 1911]). 

Chapter Seven 

116-25 You can measure: The Children’s Attributional Style Questionnaire 
(CASQ) is the most widely used measure of explanatory style in children 
between the ages of eight and twelve. See M. Seligman, N.J. Kaslow, L.B. 
Alloy, C. Peterson, R. Tannenbaum, and L.Y. Abramson, “Attributional 
Style and Depressive Symptoms Among Children,” Journal of Abnormal Psy¬ 
chology , 93 (1984), 235-8. 

126 Children do get: See, for example, J. Puig-Antich, E. Lukens, M. Davies, 
D. Goetz, J. Brennan-Quattrock, and G. Todak, “Psychosocial Functioning 
in Prepubertal Major Depressive Disorders: I. Interpersonal Relationships 
During the Depressive Episode,” Archives of General Psychiatry , 42 (1985), 
500-7. As this book was in production, Kim Puig-Antich, America’s leading 
investigator of severe depression in young children, died suddenly at the age 



of forty-seven. Psychiatry and psychology are much poorer for the loss of so 
humane and insightful an investigator. 

129-30 Let's look for a minute: The leading investigator of helplessness in the 
classroom is Carol Dweck, and she and her colleagues carried out the work 
detailed in this section. For a review, see C.S. Dweck and B. Licht, “Learned 
Helplessness and Intellectual Achievement,” in J. Garber and M. Seligman, 
eds., Human Helplessness: Theory and Applications (New York: Academic 
Press, 1980), 197-222. 

131-4 In Heidelberg in 1981: See M. Seligman and G. Elder, “Learned Help¬ 
lessness and Life-Span Development,” in A. Sorenson, F. Weinert, and 

L. Sherrod, eds., Human Development and the Life Course: Multidisciplinary 
Perspectives (Hillsdale, N.J.: Erlbaum, 1985), 377-427. 

132 The most creative idea: If you would like to learn to become a skilled rater of 
verbatim speech, a manual can be found in the appendix to P. Schulman, 
C. Caste lion, and M. Seligman, “Assessing Explanatory Style: The Content 
Analysis of Verbatim Explanations and the Attributional Style Question¬ 
naire,” Behavior Research and Therapy , 27 (1989), 505-12. It takes about half 
a day to become a reliable rater. 

134-5 In addition to the findings: This important work on vulnerability factors is 
found in G.W. Brown and T. Harris, Social Origins of Depression (London: 
Tavistock, 1978). 

Chapter Eight 

138-41 How can you tell: The rating scale for your child’s depression is my slightly 
modified version of the CES-DC (Center for Epidemiological Studies-Depres- 
sion Child) test. This test was devised by M. Weissman, H. Orvaschell, and 
N. Padian, “Children’s Symptom and Social Functioning: Self-Report Scales,” 
Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease , 168 (1980), 736-40. 

141 I elaborated: For more on Carol Dweck’s work, see C.S. Dweck and B. Licht, 
“Learned Helplessness and Intellectual Achievement,” in J. Garber and 

M. Seligman, eds., Human Helplessness: Theory and Applications (New York: 
Academic Press, 1980), 197-222. 

143-9 In the fall of 1985: For a representative article from the Princeton-Penn 
Longitudinal Study, see S. Nolen-Hoeksema, J. Girgus, and M. Seligman, 
“Learned Helplessness in Children: A Longitudinal Study of Depression, 
Achievement, and Explanatory Style,” Journal of Personality and Social Psy - 
chotogy, 51 (1986), 435-42- 

145-7 Because divorce and serious turmoil: There has been some convergence of 
research lately on the surprisingly deleterious effects on children of divorce, 
separation, and most of all, parental fighting. Three important references: 
J. Wallerstein and S. Blakeslee, Second Chances: Men , Women, and Children 
a Decade After Divorce (New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1989); E.M. Hether- 
ington, M. Cox, and C. Roger, “Effects of Divorce on Parents and Children,” 
in M.E. Lamb, ed., Non-traditional Families (Hillsdale, N.J.: Erlbaum, 1982), 
233-88; and E.M. Cummings, D. Vogel, J.S. Cummings, and M. El-Sheikh, 
“Children’s Responses to Different Forms of Expression of Anger Between 
Adults,” Child Development , 60 (1989), 1392-1404. 



page 147 lam not naive : For the experiments on resolution of fights, see E.M. Cummings 
et al., “Children’s Responses to Different Forms of Expression of Anger 
Between Adults.” 

148 I believe it is important: The destructive effects of anger, as well as its (over¬ 
blown) constructive aspects, are ably reviewed in Carol Tavris’s bold book 
Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982). 

149-50 As you know : For an excellent treatment of sex differences in depression, 
see S. Nolen-Hoeksema, “Sex Differences in Depression: Theory and Evi¬ 
dence,” Psychological Bulletin , 101 (1987), 259-82, as well as her important 
book Sex Differences in Depression (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 


151- 2 So the week the class of ’87: This work was carried out in collaboration with 
Leslie Kamen, but we were beaten to publication by Peterson and Barrett, 
who were simultaneously doing essentially the same study at another univer¬ 
sity. C. Peterson and L. Barrett, “Explanatory Style and Academic Perfor¬ 
mance Among University Freshmen,” Journal of Personality and Social 
Psychology , 53 (1987), 603-7. 

152- 3 But at least one : The West Point work was carried out in collaboration with 
Dick Butler, Bob Priest, and William Burke of West Point, and with Peter 
Schulman. The most important contributors, however, are the twelve hundred 
plebes of the class of 1991 who have now cooperated with this study for three 

Chapter Nine 

158 We also wanted to know: The yearly “Elias” compendium of fascinating base¬ 
ball statistics is our source for batting and pitching under pressure. See 
S. Siwoff, S. Hirdt, and T. Hirdt, The 1988 Elias Baseball Analyst (New York: 
Collier, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1988). We also used the 1985, 1986, 
and 1987 volumes. 

165-6 In October 1988: See M. Seligman, S. Nolen-Hoeksema, N. Thornton, and 
K.M. Thornton, “Explanatory Style as a Mechanism of Disappointing Athletic 
Performance,” Psychological Science , 1 (1990), 143-6. 

Chapter Ten 

167-8 Daniel was only nine: Daniel’s story is told in M. Visintainer and M. Selig¬ 
man, “The Hope Factor,” American Health , 2 (1983), 58-61. 

169 She was tremendously excited: See E. J. Langer and J. Rodin, “Effects of 
Choice and Enhanced Personal Responsibility for the Aged: A Field Exper¬ 
iment in an Institutional Setting,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychol¬ 
ogy , 34 ( 1976 ), 191-9. 

169-70 Madelon Visintainer wanted: See M. Visintainer, J. Volpicelli, and M. Sel¬ 
igman, “Tumor Rejection in Rats After Inescapable or Escapable Shock,” 
Science , 216 (1982), 437-9. 

170 Actually , almost the first: See L.S. Sklar and H. Anisman, “Stress and Coping 
Factors Influence Tumor Growth,” Science, 205 (1979), 513-15. 

Another of Madelon’s discoveries: M. Seligman, and M. Visintainer, “Tumor 



Rejection and Early Experience of Uncontrollable Shock in the Rat/' in F.R. 
Brush and J.B. Overmier, eds., Affect , Conditioning , and Cognition: Essays 
on the Determinants of Behavior (Hillsdale, N.J.: Erlbaum, 1985), 203-10. 
172-3 Researchers looking at the immune systems: For a useful dip into this highly 
technical field, see S.F. Maier, M. Laudenslager, and S.M. Ryan, “Stressor 
Controllability, Immune Function, and Endogenous Opiates,” in Affect , Con¬ 
ditioning , and Cognition , 203-10. 

174 The first systematic study: See C. Peterson, “Explanatory Style as a Risk Factor 
for Illness,” Cognitive Therapy and Research , 12 (1988), 117-30. 

175 Other studies looked: See S. Greer, T. Morris, and K.W. Pettingale, “Psy¬ 
chological Response to Breast Cancer: Effect on Outcome,” The Lancet , II 
( 1979 ), 785 - 7 * 

In a later study: See the unpublished manuscript by S. Levy, M. Seligman, 
L. Morrow, C. Bagley, and M. Lippman, “Survival Hazards Analysis in First 
Recurrent Breast Cancer Patients: Seven Year Follow-up.” 

175-6 Such results: B.R. Cassileth, E.G. Lusk, D.S. Miller, L.L. Brown, and C. 
Miller, “Psychosocial Correlates of Survival in Malignant Disease,” New En¬ 
gland Journal of Medicine , 312 (1985), 1551—5; and M. Angell, “Disease as a 
Reflection of the Psyche,” New England Journal of Medicine , 312 (1985), 

177 About a decade ago: See R. Bartrop, L. Lock hurst, L. Lazarus, L. Kiloh, and 
R. Penney, “Decreased Lymphocyte Function After Bereavement,” The Lan¬ 
cet , I (1979), 834-6. 

Depression also seems to affect: See M. Irwin, M. Daniels, E.T. Bloom, T.L. 
Smith, and H. Weiner, “Life Events, Depressive Symptoms, and Immune 
Function,” American Journal of Psychiatry , 144 (1987), 437-41. 

To test this: see the unpublished manuscript by L. Kamen, J. Rodin, C. Dwyer, 
and M. Seligman, “Pessimism and Cell-mediated Immunity.” 

178 Before we could answer: See M. Bums and M. Seligman, “Explanatory Style 
Across the Lifespan: Evidence for Stability over 52 years,” Journal of Per¬ 
sonality and Social Psychology , 56 (1989), 471-7. 

179-81 We needed a large group: See C. Peterson, M. Seligman, and G. Vaillant, 
“Pessimistic Explanatory Style as a Risk Factor for Physical Illness: A Thirty- 
five-year Longitudinal Study,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology , 
55 (1988), 23-7. 

Chapter Eleven 

186 We read: E. Erikson, Young Man Luther (New York: Norton, 1957). 

187-98 What kind of president: See H.M. Zullow, G. Oettingen, C. Peterson, and 
M. Seligman, “Pessimistic Explanatory Style in the Historical Record: CAVE- 
ing LBJ, Presidential Candidates and East versus West Berlin,” American 
Psychologist 43 (1988), 673-82; and H.M. Zullow and M. Seligman, “Pessi¬ 
mistic Rumination Predicts Defeat of Presidential Candidates: 1900-1984,” 
Psychological Inquiry 1 (1990). 

198-204 In 1983 I went: See Zullow, et al., “Pessimistic Explanatory Style in the 
Historical Record,” and G. Oettingen and M. Seligman, “Pessimism and 



Behavioural Signs of Depression in East versus West Berlin,” European 
Journal of Social Psychology 20 (1990), 207-20. 

Chapter Twelve 

The exercises in chapters twelve through fourteen originate first in the 
seminal work of Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis, referred to in chapters four 
and five. They formulated the first versions of our techniques in order to 
alleviate depression among those already afflicted. In 1987 Metropolitan Life 
asked Foresight, Inc., to adapt these techniques for a normal population and 
in a preventive mode, so that they could use them with their sales force—a 
very nondepressed group. I called on the considerable talents of Steve Hollon, 
professor at Vanderbilt University and editor of Cognitive Research and Ther¬ 
apy , and Art Freeman, professor at the New Jersey College of Medicine and 
Dentistry and one of the world’s leading teachers of cognitive therapy, to help 
change basic cognitive therapy techniques in the two ways I have noted. Dan 
Oran of Foresight, Inc., and Dick Calogero of Metropolitan Life administered 
the workshop project; Karen Reivich was principal editor of the manuals 

In these three chapters I draw heavily on what we did and what we learned, 
page 221 Learned optimism works: I believe that Phillip Kendall, professor of psy¬ 
chology at Temple University, first used the phrase “the power of non-negative 
thinking” to describe the mechanism by which cognitive therapy works. 

Chapter Fourteen 

The techniques outlined in this chapter were developed under the auspices of 
Foresight, Inc. Steve Hollon, Art Freeman, Dan Oran, Karen Reivich, and I 
systematized the techniques of cognitive therapy for preventive use by non¬ 
depressed sales agents. Foresight developed one-, two-, and four-day work¬ 
shops for businesses, based on this material. Copies can be obtained from 
Foresight, Inc., 3516 Duff Drive, Falls Church, Va. 22041 [703-820-8170]. 

Chapter Fifteen 

A more detailed exposition of the role of individualism in the modem epidemic 
of depression can be found in M. Seligman, “Why Is There So Much Depres¬ 
sion Today? The Waxing of the Individual and the Waning of the Commons,” 
The G. Stanley Hall Lecture Series, 9 (Washington, D.C.: American Psycho¬ 
logical Association, 1989). See also M. Seligman, “Boomer Blues,” Psychology 
Today , October 1988, 50-5. 

283 Who chooses?: Christopher Lasch’s insightful The Culture of Narcissism (New 
York: Norton, 1979) makes a similar point in a rather different framework. 
The self has a history : One night over poker, Henry Gleitman made this point 
about background figures in medieval and Renaissance painting. I hope I have 
not preempted Gleitman’s using it in his best-selling introductory psychology 



The expansion of the self: Harold Zullow first used the phrase “Yankee Self’ 
in one of my graduate seminars about individualism. 

285- 6 Life is inevitably full: The investigation of the Kaluli is found in E. Schief- 
felin, “The Cultural Analysis of Depressive Affect: An Example from New 
Guinea,” in A. Kleinman and B. Good, eds.. Culture and Depression (Uni¬ 
versity of California Press, 1985). 

286- 90 Selfishness may not be as entrenched a habit as we think and therefore 
more modifiable than generally believed. See B. Schwartz, The Battle for 
Human Nature (New York: Norton, 1988). 


There are four people without whose help this book would not have come into 

First and foremost is Tom Congdon. When I finally decided I would write a book 
that tried to explain the field of personal control to the layman, I knew I needed 
help. I am vain enough to think my technical writing is pretty good, but writing 
dialogue, sustaining suspense, characterizing the scientists I’ve known were all tasks 
beyond anything I had done before. I met Tom and was able to convince him to 
work with me. Tom not only rewrote most sentences in the book, but he helped 
reorganize it. He challenged notions that had eluded the professionals in the field 
and made me rethink them. But best of all, when spirits flagged, when editors 
carped, when hard discs crashed, when ideas ran dry, Tom was always there to 
encourage and support and nurture. And he became a friend. 

Dan Oran, the president of Foresight, Inc., urged me to write this book. I balked. 
Too much else to do: too many experiments on personal control yet undone, too 
many manuals for preventing depression, low achievement of infectious illness to 
work on, too many other walks of life in which to test optimism. He made the 
case more palatable by offering to write it with me. But as he made me take the 
project more and more seriously, I realized that it was the story of my life’s work 
and since I was responsible for that, I wanted to be the sole author. 

Dan also introduced me to Richard Pine, who became my agent. Agents, I read 
recently in The New York Times , are supposed to be the people “who never return 
your calls.” Not Richard. He is an author’s dream. He has read every word of this 
book at least four times. Not a few words, he urged changing. At the end of our 
first meeting, sensing my balkiness, Richard said, “I pray for this book. This is the 
sort of stuff religions are made of.” 

I was taken aback and repeated this extraordinary statement to my new father- 
in-law, a reserved British industrialist, Dennis McCarthy, the next week. “I don’t 
know about that,” he said, “but think about large companies. A successful company 
has both a research and a development department. You’ve spent the last twenty- 



five years doing basic research on personal control and in recent times you’ve begun 
your development phase. This book, giving away the basic ideas to the layman 
who wants to know how to lead a more rational life, is development of a high 
order.” In that moment I decided to do the book. For the next year and a half it 
was pretty much all I did. Dennis also gave me invaluable suggestions about the 
business chapters. 

A number of other people had very useful advice about the manuscript as a 
whole or about large swaths of it. 

First my editor, Jonathan Segal. Jonathan’s tough-minded readings of the man¬ 
uscript were not only for style (“Always write up”), but about major issues of 
substance as well (“Emphasize flexible optimism. You no more want people to be 
prisoners of optimism than prisoners of pessimism. What is pessimism good for? 
Under what conditions should people deploy pessimism rather than optimism?” 
And many more). The book is meatier because of Jonathan’s help. 

Next, Karen Reivich. Karen writes dialogue beautifully, and I asked her to 
generate lots of it from her experience running and designing seminars for Foresight, 
Inc., in changing explanatory style. Many of the dialogues between therapist and 
patient, mother and child, originate in Karen’s experience or in her fertile imag¬ 
ination. She also argued with me about the title (and subtitle) at length and helped 
select the poetry. I hope Karen becomes a psychologist. Tom Congdon wants her 
to become a writer. Both of us hold her and her talents in high esteem. 

Peter Schulman has worked with me for the last eight years as the administrator 
of my scientific research and the vice-president for operations of Foresight, Inc. 
At many points in writing this book, I went to Peter and asked him to analyze still 
more data. “By how much in grade-point average did the West Point optimists 
beat the West Point pessimists?” “Does Prudential’s special force do as well as 
Met Life’s special force?” And many more. Peter’s answers were always prompt, 
careful, and not infrequently brilliant. 

My daughter, Amanda Seligman, presently a senior classics major at Princeton, 
read the first third of the manuscript in early draft and helped me bring it down 
to earth. 

Terry Silver, my secretary, helped in ways too numerous to list. 

Finally the twenty undergraduate and eight graduate students who took my 
seminar in 1989-90 at the University of Pennsylvania read the whole first draft. 
Many commented usefully. 

A large number of other people helped with individual chapters. I am grateful to 
all of the following people, most of whom have allowed me to collaborate with 
them or whose work has directly inspired my own: 

Chapter one. To get started I asked the help of several skilled writers. Ralph 
Keyes, Carol Stillman, and Bob Trotter all read the very first draft and each tried 
to point me in the right direction. 

Chapter two narrates the history of learned helplessness. Though their contri¬ 
butions are chronicled there, Steve Maier, Bruce Overmier, Dick Solomon, and 
Don Hiroto must be singled out as the major forces who helped create and guide 
this field. The National Institute of Mental Health, the National Science Foun¬ 
dation, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Woodrow Wilson Foundation all 
supported my work during this period. 

A ckno wledgments 


Chapter three discusses explanatory style. This concept had its beginning with 
Lyn Abramson, Chris Peterson, John Teasdale, and Judy Garber. Their story is 
told in this chapter. Karen Reivich helped create and validate the questionnaire 
in this chapter. The National Institute of Mental Health (especially Jack Maser 
and Bob Hirschfeld), which has supported my work for over twenty years, and the 
National Science Foundation deserve special thanks. The Center for Advanced 
Study in the Behavioral Sciences also supported me during this period. 

Chapters four and five are about depression. Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis must 
be singled out for demystifying depression and bringing it from the darkness into 
the penumbra. Along with Dean Schuyler and Mickey Stunkard, Beck was the 
mentor who showed me how depression could be cured. Gerry Klerman, Myma 
Weissman, Janice Egeland, and Buck Schieffelin have all made fundamental con¬ 
tributions to the understanding of depression as it is found across the world. Lenore 
Radloff developed the CES-D. Steve Hollon, Rob DeRubeis, and Mark Evans 
carried out the definitive study of cognitive therapy for depression and I am grateful 
to them for their collaboration. Susan Nolen-Hoeksema devised and tested the 
theory of rumination and gender differences in depression. The National Institute 
of Mental Health supports my work in this area, and it must be said that without 
this institution’s support of the hundreds of scientists in the field of affective dis¬ 
orders, depression would still be a mystery with no cure. Humanity should be 
grateful to this great American institution. 

Chapter six is about success at work, and Metropolitan Life has been the inspi¬ 
ration for it. Met Life is also the organization in which many of the ideas were 
tested and validated. I am particularly grateful to Dick Calogero, who was my 
patient collaborator for seven years, to John Creedon, who got everything started, 
to Howard Mase and Bob Crimmins, who led the charge, to A 1 Oberlander, Joyce 
Jiggetts, Yvonne Miesse and the nearly 200,000 applicants and agents who have 
taken the Attributional Style Questionnaire. I would like to acknowledge the 
significant contribution of Dr. Mary Anne Layden to the authorship of this 
questionnaire. Numerous meetings with Amy Semmel, Lyn Abramson, Lauren 
Alloy, and Nadine Kaslow then refined it. 

John Riley introduced me to the leaders of the insurance industry, and Dan 
Oran and Peter Schulman of Foresight, Inc., ran the studies and analyzed the 
findings. Robert Dell exemplifies what it is to be a fine “special agent,’’ and I 
am grateful to him for letting me tell his intimate story. I also thank the many 
applicants and agents of Mutual of Omaha, Prudential, and Reliance who have 
taken the ASQ. 

Dennis McCarthy provided insights into optimism and industry. Lauren Alloy 
and Lyn Abramson are the psychologists who have most shaped the field of de¬ 
pressive realism. 

Chapters seven and eight are about parents and children. Nadine Kaslow and 
Richard Tanenbaum led the way in creating the CASQ. Carol Dweck’s research 
on schoolchildren and helplessness opened up the field of achievement and ex¬ 
planatory style. Chris Peterson devised the CAVE technique and Glen Elder in¬ 
spired its first use with historical data. The Social Science Research Council 
Committee on Life Span Development, led by Matilda Riley, Bert Brim, Paul 



Baltes, Dave Featherman, and Judy Dunn, nurtured and inspired our longitudinal 
studies of children. The National Institute of Mental Health funded it. 

Joan Girgus and Susan Nolen-Hoeksema have been the central contributors 
to the field of explanatory style and depression in children. Both read and made 
major changes in chapter eight. The school systems of Princeton, Trenton, and 
East Windsor townships in New Jersey have patiently allowed us to test their wards 
for the last five years. We are very grateful to the teachers, parents, and admin¬ 
istrators, and mostly to the kids, from these schools. Cindy Fruchtman and Gilda 
Paul ran these studies. Willis Stetson and the admissions officials at the University 
of Pennsylvania, and Dick Butler, Bob Priest, and William Burke at West Point 
were generous collaborators. My son, David Seligman, helped me give the test at 
West Point. 

Several of my graduate students gave me good advice about the naivete of 
advising warring couples not to fight. Lisa Jaycox, Deborah Steams, Jane Eisner, 
Greg Buchanan, Nicholas Maxwell, Karen Reivich, and Jane Gillham all read this 
chapter carefully and changed my thinking about how to present the issue. 

Chapter nine is about sports. Chris Peterson did the first work on explanatory 
style and sports. David Rettew, Karen Reivich, and David Seligman worked long 
and hard on these studies. David Rettew originated the National League study. 
The Elias Sports Bureau's compilations of baseball statistics are a marvel. Susan 
Nolen-Hoeksema carried out the studies of the Berkeley swimmers; special thanks 
must go to Nort and Karen Moe Thornton, the Berkeley swimming coaches, and 
most of all to the men and women of the Berkeley varsity swim teams. 

Chapter ten is about health. Madelon Visintainer, Joe Volpicelli, Steve Maier, 
Leslie Kamen, and Judy Rodin did the seminal work in learned helplessness, 
explanatory style, and health. Chris Peterson and George Vaillant led the study 
of explanatory style and health over the life span. Judy Rodin and Sandy Levy are 
the leaders and inspiration of the MacArthur studies of health, the immune system, 
and personality. T George Harris kept reminding me how important this work was 
and let the world know about it. The MacArthur Foundation, generous and ad¬ 
venturous souls, and the National Institute on Aging have funded this work. 

Chapter eleven is about politics, culture, and religion. Harold Zullow spear¬ 
headed the work on American politics. I cheered him on. Gabriele Oettingen, 
likewise, spearheaded the work on explanatory style across cultures. I cheered her 
on. Eva Morawska and Gabriele carried out the studies of Judaism and Russian 
Orthodoxy. Dan Goleman suggested predicting the 1988 primaries and Alan Kors, 
almost twenty years ago, insisted that a rigorous and predictive psychohistory was 
possible. (It was also Alan who, when my book Helplessness came out fifteen years 
ago, remarked that he hoped that my next one would be about the opposite. It 
is.) Jack Rachman took me to the betting shops of Edinburgh. Poor man, he too 
bet on Dukakis. 

Chapters twelve, thirteen, and fourteen are about how to change explanatory 
style. Art Freeman and Steve Hollon led the work which transformed Beck’s 
principles of cognitive therapy with depressed people to workshops and exercises 
which nondepressed people could usefully carry out—and carry out preventively. 
Dan Oran and Karen Reivich administered these projects and also made major 
intellectual contributions to the content. Tim Beck and Albert Ellis founded this 
whole field and many of their ideas and schemae are incorporated. 



Ed Craighead and Robert DeMonbreun wrote the first prevention program for 
children almost fifteen years ago, when its time had not yet come. Susan Nolen- 
Hoeksema and Judy Garber have also played a major role in the understanding 
of how to prevent depression in kids, and made useful suggestions for chapter 

Metropolitan Life in general, and Dick Calogero, Howard Mase, Bob Crimmins, 
Yvonne Miesse, Joyce Jiggetts, and John Creedon in particular played important 
roles in our studies of how to change explanatory style in industry. I am especially 
grateful to the agents of Metropolitan Life who have taken Foresight, Inc.’s 

Chapter fifteen is about the future and I am grateful to Lara Catrina Seligman 
just for being part of it. T George Harris twisted my arm to write about depression 
and individualism, and the American Psychological Association’s invitation to de¬ 
liver the 1988 G. Stanley Hall Lecture provided the first occasion for these thoughts. 
Knopf’s anonymous proofreader should be singled out for praise. She made a special 
trip to the Cloister’s collection to check out the accuracy of the remark about 
Renaissance painting. Proofreading at its best. Barry Schwartz, my bridge partner 
and source of intellectual stimulation for over twenty years, has been a major force 
in getting me to rethink the questions of selfishness and individualism and the 
weak no trump. 

Finally there have been two global influences on my life and this book. The psy¬ 
chology department at the University of Pennsylvania has been the home and 
support of all this work for twenty-five years. I owe a debt of gratitude I can never 
repay to my teachers, my students, and my colleagues there. 

Most of all, I wish to thank Mandy McCarthy, Lara’s mother, my wife. Her love, 
her intellectual insight, and her unflagging support allowed this book to happen. 

January 24, 1990 


ABC (adversity, beliefs, conse¬ 
quences) model 
for adults, 211-17 
for children, 236-40 
for work situations, 259-62, 263-7 
ABCDE (adversity, beliefs, conse¬ 
quences, disputation, energiza¬ 
tion) model 
for adults, 223-8 
for children, 240-7 
for work situations, 268-74 
Abramson, Lyn, 40, 41, 42, 43, 109 
achievement, see success 
admissions policies of colleges, 150-4 
Alan (grade school student), 138 
alcohol use, 86 
Alloy, Lauren, 109 
alpha child, 138 

alternatives for disputing beliefs, 

Angell, Marcia, 175-6 
animal experiments to understand 

mental illness, 19-23, 25-7, 28 
Anisman, Hymie, 170 
antidepressant drugs, 11, 12, 55, 69, 

Asimov, Isaac, 185 

ASQ (Attributional Style Question¬ 

naire), 99, 101, 102-3, 106, 

151, 165 

athletes’ explanatory styles, 164-6 
attention shifting, 218 
attribution theory, 40, 41, 43 
automatic thoughts, 89, 91 

baseball and optimism, 157-60 
Basic Rest and Activity Cycle 
(BRAC), 58, 113 
basketball and optimism, 161-3 
Beck, Aaron T., 57, 71, 72 - 3 , 74 - 5 , 


depression and, 58-9 
environmental influences, 8-9 
expectations and, 25 
self-direction and, 9-10 
behaviorism, 9, 87 
dogmas of, 24 

ideological underpinnings, 24-5 
learned helplessness and, 23-4, 

PREE principle, 40-1 
behavior therapy, 73-4 
bereavement, 176, 177 
Bierce, Ambrose, in 



biomedical view of depression, 11-12, 
55, 65-6, 69 
Biondi, Matt, 163-4 
bipolar depression, 55, 65 
Boston Celtics, 161, 162 
Brahe, Tycho, 27 
brain-immune system connection, 

Broadbent, Donald, 31 

Brown, George, 134, 203 

Bruner, Jerome, 31 

Bums, Conrad, 197 

Bums, Melanie, 178 

Bush, George, 193, 194, 195, 196, 197 

Butler, Richard, 152 


cognitive therapy for, 183-4 
and helplessness, 169-70 
psychological state and, 175-6 
Career Profile (insurance industry 
test), 100-1, 102 
Carter, Jimmy, 190 
case studies, 21 

CASQ (Children’s Attributional Style 
Questionnaire), 116-25 
Cassileth, Barrie, 175, 176 
catastrophizers, 46-8 
catecholamines, 176-7, 182 
CAVE (content analysis of verbatim 
explanations) technique, 132 
for cancer patients, 175 
for early statements of older peo¬ 
ple, 132-4, 178, 181 
for national explanatory style, 200 
for psychohistory, 186-8, 189, 193 
for sports teams, 157, 158 
CES-D (Center for Epidemiological 
Studies-Depression) test, 


CES-DC (Center for Epidemiological 
Studies-Depression Child) test, 

chief executive officers (CEOs), 112 
childhood depression, 126-7 
bad life events and, 144-9 
divorce by parents and, 145-7 

explanatory styles and, 143-4 
family fighting and, 147-9 
gender differences, 149-50 
longitudinal study on, 143-5, 149 
risk factors for, 143 
test to determine, 138-41 
vicious circle of, 148 
childhood experience, impact on 
health in adulthood, 170 

explanatory styles, origin of, 


explanatory styles, test to deter¬ 
mine, 116-25 
hope in, 126 

school performance and explana¬ 
tory styles, 137—8, 141-3, 


children’s use of skills of optimism, 

235, 253 

disputation techniques, 240-4 
guidelines for, 235-6 
identifying ABCs, 236-8 
personal ABC record, 238-40 
personal disputation record 
(ABCDE model), 240-7 
Chiles, Lawton, 197 
Chomsky, Noam, 9, 27 
Cindy (grade school child), 144 
Clark, Jack, 160 
coaching and optimism, 166 
cognitive psychology, 9 
self-improvement perspective, 

87-9, 9 i 

Cognitive Psychology (Neisser), 9 
cognitive therapy, 75-6 
development of, 71-5 
efficacy of, 91 

explanatory styles changed through, 
79 - 82 , 91 

physical illness treated with, 183-4 
rumination and, 83 
tactics of, 89-91 
cold calling, 98-9, 254 
disputation techniques for, 263-4, 
268-9, 279 
common good 

declines in commitment to, 284-6 



recommitment to, need for, 287-90 
controllable aspects of life, see per¬ 
sonal control 

corporate executives, 107, 112 
Creedon, John, 96, 97-8, 99, 106-7 
Crimmins, Bob, 106 
criticism in science, 42 
culture and explanatory styles, 198- 

Daniel (cancer patient), 167-8 
DART (Depression Awareness, Rec¬ 
ognition, Treatment Program), 

deaf child story, 3-4 
death and helplessness, 168-9 
decatastrophizing technique, 222 
defeat, 76, 78 

learned helplessness and, 67 
optimists’ perspective on, 4-5 
defense, notion of, 179, 180 
Dell, Robert, 104-5 
depression, 4, 5, 12-13, 52, 54 
behavioral symptoms, 58-9 
biomedical view of, 11-12, 55, 
65-6, 69 

bipolar depression, 55, 65 
cure for, see cognitive therapy 
cycle of, 58, 113-14 
diagnosis of, 62-3, 68, 141 
Ellis and Beck’s work on, 71-3, 

epidemic of, 10, 63-5, 70, 282, 

remedies for, 286-91 
episodic nature, 11 
explanatory styles and, 42-3, 48-9, 
58, 76-7,81, no 
Freudian view of, 10-11 
genetic contribution to, 84 
hormonal changes due to, 176-7 
immune system and, 177 
learned helplessness and, 66-70, 

lifetime prevalence of, 63-4 
longitudinal study on, 79 
maximal self and, 282-4, 286 

memory and, 110 
men and, 65, 85-7 
model of, 66-70 
mood, negative change in, 58 
negative thoughts as cause of, 72, 
73 , 74-5 

normal depression, 54-5, 56 
perception of reality and, 108-11 
pessimism as cause of severe 
depression, 76-9, 81-2 
physical symptoms, 59 
primitive cultures and, 286 
rumination and, 75, 82-3, 85-7 
social skills and, 109-10 
symptoms, 57-9 
in teenage years, 85, 149-50 
test to determine, 59-63 
thought, negative change in, 57-8 
unipolar depression, 55-6, 65-6 
waning of the commons and, 284-6 
women and, 64-5, 75, 83-7 
see also childhood depression 
Descartes, Rene, 171-2 
desire, 13 

despair, see depression 
Dewey, Thomas E., 190, 192 
dieting, 210 

disputing negative beliefs, 218-19 
children’s use of disputation, 240-7 
“extemalization of voices” exer¬ 
cises, 228-33, 247-52, 275-6, 

personal disputation record 
(ABCDE model), 223-8 
techniques for, 220-3 
in work situations, 262-3, 267-74 
distancing to deal with pessimistic be¬ 
liefs, 219-20 

distraction to deal with pessimistic be¬ 
liefs, 217-18, 223 
in work situations, 276-7 

depression in children due to, 


family in society and, 285 
Dole, Robert, 193, 194 
DSM-III-R (Diagnostic and Statistical 
Manual of the American 

3 M 


DSM-III-R (i cont'd) 

Psychiatric Association, third 
edition, revised), 68 
dualism, 171-2 

Dukakis, Michael, 191, 193, 194, 195* 

Dweck, Carol, 129-30, 141 

egalitarianism, 24-5 
Eisenhower, Dwight D., 188, 190 
Elder, Glen, 131—3, 186 
electroconvulsive therapy, 11-12, 69 
Elias Sports Bureau, 156, 157 
Ellis, Albert, 71-2, 89, 21m 
empirical tests, 100 
endorphin, 177, 178, 182 
“epicycles” in psychological theory, 


Erikson, Erik, 186, 192 
ethology, 9, 201 

evidence for disputing beliefs, 221 
expectations and behavior, 25 
explanatory style, skills for changing, 
see skills of optimism 
explanatory styles, 15-16, 43-4 
of athletes, 164-6 
attribution theory and, 41 
change and stability over time, 


childhood crises, influence of, 


childhood depression and, 143-4 
cognitive therapy used to change, 


criticism in childhood, influence of, 

cultural differences and, 198-202 
depression and, 42-3, 48-9, 58, 
76-7,81, no 

determination of style without 
questionnaires, see CAVE 

development of (crystallizing), 116, 


gender differences, 129-30 
as habit of thought, 44 
heritability issue, 129 

hope and, 48-9 

learned helplessness and, 40, 43, 
45 , 47 , 48 

mother’s style, influence of, 127-9, 

national styles, 199-202 
negative style, see pessimism 
permanence dimension, 44-6, 47, 

48, 76-7 

personal control of, 8-10 
personalization dimension, 49-51, 
52 , 76-7 

pervasiveness dimension, 46-8, 

positive style, see optimism 
religion and, 203-4 
responsibility and, 52 
school performance and, 137-8, 


of sports teams, 157-63 
see also politicians’ explanatory 

explanatory styles, test for adults 
questions, 32-9, 99 
scoring, 44-6, 47-8, 49, 5®-i 
explanatory styles, test for children, 


“extemalization of voices” exercises 
for adults, 228-33 
for children, 247-52 
for work situations, 275-6, 277-9 

failure, see defeat 
the family, erosion of, 285 
family fighting and childhood depres¬ 
sion, 147-9 

flexible optimism, 112, 208, 291-2 
Ford, Gerald, 190 
Foresight, Inc., 258 
Foster, George, 159 
Foundation Trilogy (Asimov), 185 
Freeman, Arthur, 211, 258 
Freud, Sigmund 
on depression, 10-11 
influence on Seligman, 18-19 
Freudian psychology 
on behavior, 9 



criticisms of, 11, 73-4 
on depression, 10-11 
fundamentalist religion, 287 

Garber, Judy, 40, 41, 42 
Gelder, Michael, 31 

depression and, 84 
explanatory styles and, 129 
Gephardt, Richard, 193 
German national explanatory styles, 

Girgus, Joan, 136-7, 141-2 
Goldwater, Barry, 190 
Gooden, Dwight, 159 
Gore, Albert, 193 
graduate student story, 7-8 
Grant study on lifetime health, 


Gray, Jeffrey, 31 

Haig, Alexander, 193, 194 
Hart, Gary, 193, 194 

bad life events and, 173-4, 182 
chain of events leading to ill health, 

helplessness and, 168-70 
hope and, 168 

immune system and states of 
mind, 172-3, 176-8, 182, 


immunization through personal 
control, 170 

lifetime health and states of mind, 

mind-body problem, 171-2, 181-2 
optimism-good health relationship, 
5 > 172-4 

pessimism-ill health relationship, 
174-6, 177-8 
physical view of, 14 
prevention of illness, 173 
psychological therapy for physical 
illness, 182-4 
social support and, 174 

helplessness, 29-30 
death caused by, 168-9 
defining characteristics, 5-6 
health and, 168-70 
in infancy and old age, 6 
see also learned helplessness 
Hernandez, Keith, 159 
Herr, Tom, 160 
Herzog, Whitey, 159 
hiring policies, 105-6, 256 
Hiroto, Donald, 28-9 
Hollon, Steven, 211, 258 

in children, 126 
explanatory styles and, 48-9 
health and, 168 
hormones, 176-7, 178, 182 
Hull, Clark, 9 

Humphrey, Hubert, 189-90 

immune system and states of mind, 
172-3, 176-8, 182, 183-4 
"immunization” against helplessness, 

immunization through personal con¬ 
trol, 170 

incarceration and depression, 78 
individualism, 286-7, 288 
innocence converted into guilt, 7-8 

Jackson, Jesse, 193-4 

James, Bill, 156 

Johnson, Davey, 159 

Johnson, Lyndon B., 190 

Journal of Abnormal Psychology , 43 

Journal of Experimental Psychology , 


Judaism, 203-4 

Kaluli tribesmen, 286 
Kamen, Leslie, 177 
Kemp, Jack, 193 
Kennedy, John, 190 
Kennedy, Robert, 284 
King, Martin Luther, Jr., 284 



Klerman, Gerald, 63 
Kors, Alan, 185 

Landon, Alfred M., 192 
Langer, Ellen, 169 
learned helplessness, 15 
in animals, 19-20, 22-3, 25-7, 28 
behaviorism and, 23-4, 25-8 
cures for, 28, 67, 69 
defeat, relation to, 67 
depression and, 66-70, 76-7 
explanatory style and, 40, 43, 45, 
47 , 48 

inescapable events and, 23, 25-6, 


prevention of, 28 

reformulation of theory regarding, 
32, 40, 41-3 

research on, 19-23, 25-7, 28-30 
resilience and, 29, 30 
resistance to, 29, 32, 40 
suffering engendered by, 17-18 
women and, 85 
learned optimism, see skills of 

learning theory, 22, 23, 40-1 
Leslie, John, 95-6, 97 
Levy, Sandra, 183-4 
Lewinsohn, Peter, 109 
Lieberman, Joe, 197 
lithium carbonate, 55 
Lorenz, Konrad, 201 
Luther, Martin, 186, 192 

Macaulay, David, 54 

Mack, Connie, 197 

MacKay, Buddy, 197 

Maier, Steven, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 28 

Malcolm X, 284 

management of people, adversity and, 
mania, 55 

manic-depression, 55, 65 
Mase, Howard, 106 
materialism, 172, 175-6 
maximal self 

depression and, 282-4, 286 
strengths of, 287-91 
McGee, Willie, 159-60 
McGovern, George, 190 
meaninglessness, 287 
Melcher, John, 197 
memory, no 

depression and, 65, 85-7 
depression in childhood, 149-50 
explanatory styles, development in 
childhood, 129-30 
Metropolitan Life Insurance Com¬ 
pany, 97-106 

mood, negative change in, 58 
moral jogging, 288-90 
Morawska, Eva, 203 
mother’s influence on child’s explana¬ 
tory style, 127-9, 133 

national explanatory style, 199-202 
national pride, declines in, 284-5 
Neisser, Ulric, 9 
Nesty, Anthony, 164 
New England Journal of Medicine, 175 
New Jersey Nets, 161, 162-3 
Newsweek , 109 
New York Mets, 157-9, 160 
The New York Times , 193, 194, 281 
Nixon, Richard, 189, 190 
NK cells, 172, 173, 177, 184 
Nolen-Hoeksema, Susan, 86, 142-3 
nomination-acceptance speeches, 189, 
191, 195-6 

“non-negative thinking,” 15, 221 
nursing and adversity, 265,270-1,279 
nursing home research on helpless¬ 
ness, 169 

Oettingen, Gabriele, 198, 199, 200, 
201-2, 203, 204 
omega child, 138 

defining characteristics, 4-5 
dynamic tension between optimism 
and pessimism, 113—15 



flexible optimism, 112, 208, 291-2 
health, impact on, 5, 172-4 
perception of reality and, 108, 109- 
11, 114 

in political candidates, 188, 190-1 
religion and, 203-4 
school performance and, 137-8, 
I 4 I- 3 , 151-4 

as tool to achieve goals, 291 
work roles for optimists, 257 
see also skills of optimism; sports 
and optimism; work and 

Optimism: The Biology of Hope 
(Tiger), 108 
Oran, Dan, 258 
overmedicated society, 12 
Overmier, Bruce, 19, 20, 22 

“permanent” explanatory style, 44-6, 

47, 48, 76-7 

persistence and success at work, 101, 

104, 255 

personal control, 6-7, 15 
of explanatory styles, 8-10 
immunization through, 170 
maximal self and, 282-4 

“personalized” explanatory style, 49- 

51,52, 76-7 

“pervasive” explanatory style, 46-8, 


benefits of, 107-12, 114 
cost/benefit analysis of, 113 
defining characteristics, 4 
as depression risk factor, 76-9, 

dynamic tension between optimism 
and pessimism, 113-15 
escape from, see skills of optimism 
evolution of humans and, 114 
health, impact on, 174-6, 177-8 
hormonal changes due to, 176-7 
innocence converted into guilt, 7-8 
in political candidates, 187-9 
school performance and, 137-8, 

141-3, I 5 I -4 

self-fulfilling nature of, 7 
stability over time, 178-9 
work roles for pessimists, 112, 

Peterson, Chris, 132, 174-5, 181 
phobias, cure for, 73-4 
Piaget, Jean, 9, 27 

political systems’ impact on individu¬ 
als’ mental states, 202 
politicians’ explanatory styles, 187-8 
determining individuals’ styles, 189, 
191, 195-6 

election outcome, style relation¬ 
ship, 189-92 

pessimistic style, consequences of, 

predictions based on, 192-8 
positive thinking, 221 
potential, 154 

PREE (partial reinforcement extinc¬ 
tion effect), 40-1 

presidential campaign of 1988, 194-7 
presidential primaries of 1988, 193-4 
Princeton-Penn Longitudinal Study, 
143 - 5 , 149 

Prosper, Steve, 254-5, 258 
psychoanalysis, see Freudian 

psychohistory, 185-6, 204 
CAVE technique used for, 186-8, 


traditional form of, 186 
see also politicians’ explanatory 

psychology, science of, 8-9 
psychoneuroimmunology, 182-4 

quitting a job, 97-8, 102 

Radloff, Lenore, 59 
Reagan, Ronald, 190 
reattributions, 89 
regression equations, 150 
relaxation training, 183 

declines in belief in, 285 

3 i8 


religion ( cont’d) 
fundamentalism, 287 
optimism and, 203-4 
resilience, 29, 30 
responsibility, personal, 52 
Robertson, Pat, 193, 194 
Rodin, Judy, 169, 177, 182-3 
Roosevelt, Franklin D., 192 
Rose, Pete, 159 
rumination, 89 
defining characteristics, 75 
depression and, 82-3, 85-7 
skills to stop ruminating, 217-20 
women and, 85-7 
Russell, Bertrand, 155 
Russian Orthodoxy, 203-4 

St. Louis Cardinals, 157, 159-60 
sales, see cold calling; work and 
sapience, 115 
Sargent, Naomi, 254-5 
Schieffelin, Buck, 286 
school performance and explanatory 
styles, 137-8, 141-3, 151-4 
self, modern day focus on, see maxi¬ 
mal self 

self-esteem, 49-51 
self-improvement movement, 88 
Seligman, David, 125-6, 153, 158 
Seligman, Lara Catrina, 281 
Semmel, Amy, 78 
Senate elections of 1988, 197-8 
sex roles and depression, 84-5 
Simon, Paul, 193 
skills of optimism, 5, 15, 207-8 
ABCs, definition of, 211 
disputation record (ABCDE 
model), 223-8 

disputation techniques, 218-19, 

distancing techniques, 219-20 
distraction techniques, 217-18, 223 
“externalization of voices” exer¬ 
cises, 228-33 

guidelines for using, 208-10 
identifying ABCs, 211-13 

personal ABC record, 213-17 
see also children’s use of skills of 
optimism; work-related skills 
of optimism 
Skinner, B. F., 9, 41 
Sklar, Larry, 170 

social skills and depression, 109-10 
social support and health, 174 
Solomon, Richard L., 19, 22 
Sophie (depressed student), 56-7, 58, 
59, 68, 90-1 

Sorenson, Theodore, 195 
“special force” experiment, 103-5 
Sporting News , 157 
sports and optimism 
athletes’ explanatory styles, 164-6 
coaching, implications for, 166 
“come back from defeat” and, 

optimism-success relationship, 157— 
8, 160 

point-spread study, 161-3 
predictions regarding, 156, 163, 165 
pressure situations and, 158, 160, 
163, 164, 165 

swimming competitions, 163-6 
team explanatory styles (baseball), 

team explanatory styles (basket¬ 
ball), 161-3 

statistics, Americans’ attitude toward, 

Stetson, Willis, 150, 151 
Stevenson, Adlai, 187-8, 190 
Strawberry, Darryl, 159 
success, 13-14 
in sports, 157-8, 160 
at work, 98-9, 101-3 
Success Magazine , 104 
suicide, 10, 63, 78 
hopelessness and, 126 
motives for, 58-9 
swimming competitions, 163-6 

talent, 154 

Tanya (depressed patient), 79-81, 
82, 83 



T-cells, 172, 173, 177 
teachers’ influence on children’s ex¬ 
planatory styles, 129-30 
teaching and adversity, 264, 270, 278 
team explanatory styles 
baseball, 157-60 
basketball, 161-3 
Teasdale, John, 31, 32, 40, 42, 47 
teenage years and depression, 85, 



cheating on, 103 
for depression, 59-63 
for depression in children, 138-41 
for explanatory styles, 32-9, 99 
for explanatory styles of children, 

work-related, 99-101, 102-3 
test taking and depression, 78 
theory-based tests, 100-1 
thinking styles, control of, 8-10 
Thornton, Karen Moe, 164, 165, 166 
Thornton, Nort, 164-5, 166 
Tiger, Lionel, 108 
Tinbergen, Niko, 31 
Truman, Harry S., 190 

unipolar depression, 55-6, 65-6 

Vaillant, George, 179, 180, 181 
Verbal Behavior (Skinner), 9 
Vietnam War, 284-5 
Visintainer, Madelon, 168-71 

waning of the commons, see common 

Watergate scandal, 284, 285 
wealth-health relationship, 180' 
Weicker, Lowell, 197 
Weiner, Bernard, 40, 41, 43 
West Point “Beast Barracks,’’ 152-3 
Whitehead, Alfred North, 73 

Willkie, Wendell L., 192 
Wolpe, Joseph, 73-4 

depression and, 64-5, 75, 83-7 
depression in childhood, 149-50 
explanatory styles, development in 
childhood, 129-30 
learned helplessness and, 85 
rumination by, 85-7 
word in your heart, 16 
work and optimism, 95-8 
hiring policies and, 105-6, 256 
persistence, role of, 101, 104, 255 
pessimism changed to optimism, 
106-7, 112 

placement policies and, 256-8 
“special force’’ experiment, 103-5 
success-optimism relationship, 98-9, 

101- 3 

testing for optimism, 99-101, 

102- 3 

work-related skills of optimism 
disputation techniques, 262-3, 


distraction techniques, 276-7 
“extemalization of voices’’ exer¬ 
cises, 275-6, 277-9 
identifying ABCs, 259-62, 263-7 
personal disputation record 
(ABCDE model), 268-74 
summary of, 280 
“wall of discouragement’’ and, 

wall-vaulting game, 263-74 
workshops for optimism training, 258 
writing and adversity, 255 

Young Man Luther (Erikson), 186, 

ZuIIow, Harold, 187, 192, 193, 194-5, 
196, 197, 198 


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